Commitments and our Affective Nature

February 23, 2022


In my last post, My journey in technology and teams, I maintained that we need to take the affective aspect of our nature more seriously. The realm of the “affective” relates to moods, feelings, and attitudes. Taking all of this more seriously will help us mobilize a team to fulfill its aspirations. In this post, I discuss how to build affective skills that are critical for effective coordination and engaging in conversations that produce commitments.


Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Do you take this man/woman to be your spouse?

Do you enjoy buying a new car from a dealership? Are you comfortable returning a dish when it does not meet your expectations at a restaurant?

Do you feel rejected or invalidated when your request or offer is declined? Do you find it difficult to ask for a raise?

To a different degree, these types of conversations may make us uncomfortable, and we may even avoid them altogether. These are examples of interactions dealing with commitment among the parties involved. At the car dealership, when the salesperson accepts your offer for the car, they commit to giving you the car in exchange for payment. Making a commitment is risky. When we commit, new futures are possible, but we are also aware that we must decline to participate in other conversations, and may lose out on other opportunities in doing so. We need to trust the other person and rely on them. They might not always come through for us. Or, for other reasons, we may fail and lose future opportunities. Our reputation may suffer, or we may lose face. Nevertheless, we construct the future with others by making commitments and promises. We can observe them everywhere: our credit card accounts, our mortgages, our projects, the responsibilities of our positions or roles, playdates that we organize for our kids … the list goes on. The reality is that when working with and making commitments to others, it is inevitable that certain tribulations in our moods arise, no matter how much we may try to ignore our “emotional” side.

Requests, Promises, and Offers

Requests are a type of speech act, designed to motivate one or more persons to take care of something in the future. Promises and offers also create a “bind” to the future but, in their case, on the speaker’s part rather than on the part of the listener. Sometimes a promise arrives to us in the humble shape of a simple word, like “yes.”

For example: “Can you provide the report by tomorrow?”, “I’ll get you some water”, or “Please turn off the lights.”

These statements are not descriptions of things or facts; nor are they commentary or opinions. Rather, they are openings toward action. And along the way, they generate affective reverberations.

Making Requests

A person makes a request to another person. If they both care about the relationship, the other person will respond. Here’s an example: Recently, I got lost in a city and approached a man for help. He heard me, but continued walking, ignoring me. Something was missing between us for that man to consider the question seriously. We have all experienced asking for something from someone and being frustrated by our inability to produce an action. Or have you ever needed to ask a colleague to do something for you, but instead you beat around the bush and failed to actually make the request?

Let’s review some considerations for having a better outcome when making a request.

First, a request needs a listener, someone who will perform the relevant action if they accept the request. Therefore, the person making the request needs to make sure that it is “landing” with a particular listener. Second, the “what and when” of the work needs to be specified (this is sometimes referred to as the “conditions of satisfaction”). Timing matters too: When does the request need to be fulfilled? Other vital considerations include sincerity, a shared background of understanding, and a presupposition that the performer has the capability to satisfy the request.

Requests that lack these elements will probably produce dissatisfaction. Here are a few examples: 1) at a meeting, action items are identified but promises are not made; 2) action items/promises are not tracked or brought up for discussion again; 3) an engineer delivers working code, but the requestor expected it to have been tested and integrated when the work was reported to be complete.

Dealing with Change

Delivering on promises is a focal point in all organizations. It’s important to do all that is needed; however, circumstances change, assumptions prove incorrect, and unexpected challenges appear. Often, renegotiation is called for. Hence, the requestor and the performer need trust, sincerity, and care in order to revise the commitments to one another openly. Nothing ever goes according to plan, or as the saying goes: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Typical types of interactions in a request or offer include:

1. The client makes a request to a listener/performer.

2. The performer may accept, decline, or make a counteroffer.

3. The performer reports work done, revokes, or reports that they can no longer deliver, but offers alternatives.

From request to completion, moods, assessments, and predispositions captivate us.

A Journey into the Affective

When we commit and engage with another in discussing promises, the situation may trigger moods and automatic reactions that may affect our actions potentially positively or negatively. It is not always so simple to say yes, no, and negotiate. Anxiety anyone? Let’s review moments in a conversation that can trigger different reactions, and how our affective side may appear when dealing with commitments. Keep in mind that these reactions are neither good nor bad. They help inform us of assessments that we may unknowingly have. I recommend that you take the time to reflect on your own situations as you go through this list.

1. Making Requests

We may have trouble making requests because we don’t want to be rejected or we don’t want to sound bossy. New managers usually have issues asking their team to work on weekends or to work extra hours. They don’t want to be that kind of boss and fear that the team will resent them. If we are unable to make requests at work, we are unable to take care of our domain of concerns, which may cause issues later on.

2. Responding to a Request

When we’re asked to do something, we might say “yes” instead of “no” for fear of being perceived as incompetent or not a team player. If you are asked to work on a weekend you may feel compelled to agree for fear of closing possibilities for your future, even though the manager said that it was not an obligation.

3. Revising the Commitment

When we assess that we may not deliver what we promised we may agonize, feel stressed, and put off talking with our client. I have been in plenty of situations where I or others had hoped that we could recover and meet the deadline but, in the end, we did not.

4. Making Proposals

Generally, we feel more comfortable working on requests from our managers than in making proposals. There is more danger in this as it requires selling, evangelizing, convincing, and receiving rejections.

What’s Next?

I’ve shown that promises and commitments are how we coordinate with others in our personal, professional, and social realms. It involves rearranging our priorities to work together on what we have agreed to do.

It’s essential to develop the skills to have conversations that produce mutual commitments and actions. Our teams need skills to make high-quality requests, promises, and proposals, and they need to have the strength to renegotiate commitments when necessary.

To lead and to work with others, we need to be better listeners and pay attention to how others listen. Communication happens in the listening of our team members, not in our intent or words. For example, when I order a vegetarian soup in a restaurant outside of California, I ought to be aware that the prepared dish may disappoint me. The dish may contain a little bacon for flavor seven out of ten times. My order’s conditions of satisfaction (including what’s not spoken) are not fully heard.

We can minimize stress by taking into account that we listen differently based on our different backgrounds. We need the training to develop a sensibility to recognize moods and the strength to explore the judgments lurking around in them.

Moods, feelings, and assessments are present in us when a request or a promise is spoken. They are sometimes invisible to all, even to those experiencing them.

Here lies a tremendous opportunity in improving the quality of our work life, our work itself, and our relationships with our teams and clients. The key is shifting how we work with others. It’s all about the other, and the “we” that is formed when we work together.

Making and managing commitments is central to working together, but this always involves our affective nature, as we are all beings who view, interpret, emote, and listen to others from where we are. We can (and should) learn how to really listen, listen to our moods, and take proper action in order to invent a better future.

Pluralistic Networks has been teaching the skills for working in teams for many years through our WEST program. I joined the company to help improve the effectiveness of our programs through software. Mood Navigator is our first software and is available for use by way of our programs.

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