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Lost in maybe-maybe land

Are you addicted to "maybe"? Most people are.

"Maybe" creates more damage and lost opportunity in the world that just about any other toxic word.

Synonyms or stand-in words for "maybe"

  • Perhaps

  • Could be

  • May be able

  • Might

  • Should be okay or should be able to

  • if I have time

  • I'll let you know

  • I'll try

  • I'll do my best

  • I'll see what happens

  • If I don't have to do something else

  • I'll get back to you on that

  • Let's stay in touch

  • If I'm not too busy

  • If my schedule allows

  • Send the materials first, then I'll tell you

  • I'll get to it sometime this week

  • Let me think about it

  • I'll get to it later

  • Somehow

  • If it's not too hard

  • (not responding to a message or request)

Benefits of "maybe" (where benefits may outweigh costs)

  • Additional information (including checking with others) is needed to make a decision. If so, specify (to yourself and/or others) which information is needed and the projected time by which the decision will be made.

  • It's a big enough decision so that "sleeping on it" is a good idea. Still, set a date by when the decision will be made.

  • You would probably be able to make a better decision if you delay it until a later time, when emerging conditions that may affect the decision will be more obvious or predictable. So your decision actually is, "No, I will not make a decision on this now. I will make a decision on this when..."

  • You know you're going to say "no," but you delay telling the other person so they will feel you've given it adequate consideration. You let them know when you will let them know your decision.

  • You don't feel resourceful enough in the moment to make a good decision. So you delay it until you're more resourceful. If there is another person involved, let them know what's going on.

  • What you mean by maybe is, "I'll decide later according to my mood." And, whether you're just saying "maybe" to yourself or to another, it's understood that this is your meaning.

  • A few other circumstances may justify a "maybe."

Costs of "maybe" (where costs will likely outweigh benefits)

In most cases, when we say "maybe," either to ourselves or to others, we're indulging in short-term benefits (helping Now to feel comfortable in the moment), at the expense of much bigger long-term costs for Next (who is also the future Now). The habitual indulgence in "maybes" is symptomatic of missing Now-Next integrity and, if involving others, a lack of Oneself-Others integrity. Deciding either "yes" or especially "no" (and clearly declaring your decision either to another or to yourself) can also often be a choice of courage. See undoing fear and the CCC toolkit.

  • You've delayed making a decision because of resisted fear. So it stays with you, since a part of you will be aware that you've only delayed the decision and it will have to be ignored or made later.

  • You perpetuate and exacerbate the lack of integrity between Now and Next and also Oneself and Others (if you're saying "maybe" to another). You incur the ongoing costs of this lack of integrity.

  • If saying "maybe" to yourself, you disempower yourself as well as damage your reputation with yourself. If saying "maybe" to another or allow them to say "maybe" to you, you disempower your relationship with them, as well as your reputation with them.

  • A lack of focused commitment to getting to either a "yes" or "no," either with yourself or with another, will severely limit what you will accomplish.

"Maybe" often disguises itself inside of a seeming "yes"

How you hide a "maybe" inside a "yes" for yourself

  • "My alarm just reminded me to call Jim...I'll do that after I'm finished with this." If you were honest with yourself, you would know they'd be a chance it would slip your mind by then.

  • "Oh, I need to remember to do this later." Deep down, you know you might not remember to do it later unless you put an external structure in place right now to support that happening.

  • "Jill, I get back to you on this within a week." Even though you fully intend to, if Jill's smart, she won't depend upon it.

  • "I'll start my exercise program tomorrow." This sounds like a "yes," but you know enough about your lack of Now-Next integrity in this area to suspect that it likely won't happen unless you do a deep Now-Next negotiation now (using the resources from the NNI toolkit) about Next's desire to start the exercise program tomorrow.

You allow yourself to stay in maybe-maybe land by not recognizing that you need to create and maintain external structures to support yes-no rigor and/or you avoid doing that because it would "take away your freedom."

How you allow others to hide a "maybe" inside of a "yes"

  • "When I've made my decision on this, I'll contact you." If you simply say, "Okay," you've just colluded with their likely "maybe" (even if they believe their "yes" is not a "maybe"). Instead, you could respond, "Great, I'll rely on that. And, if I don't hear from you within two weeks (or some time period that you two agree upon), may I have permission to check back with you on the status of this?" If they agree to some date-by-when you could check back with them, then structure that in for yourself. If they don't agree to a date-by-when, consider their unwillingness to do that to be a "no, they will not contact you." Then, if they do happen to contact you as they said they would, it will be a nice surprise.

  • "I'll ask my colleague if it's okay for you to call him and then let you know if he says you can." If you say, "Great," and then let it go at that, you've probably just become complicit with their lack of self-awareness regarding their integrity with these types of promises. I've found that fewer than 5% of people are reliably rigorous with promises of this nature. Instead, respond with something like this, "Thank you. If I don't hear from you by next Monday, may I check with you on the status of this?"

Rule-of-thumb: always get the next action back in your court, even if it might not be needed. If you leave it completely in their court and they don't follow through as agreed, then if you try to follow up with them (and you haven't even gotten clear with them how long should wait before you do that), then it could easily feel pushy and even disrespectful. However, if you keep a potential action in your court (with an agreed upon date), where you've gotten permission to get back to them in case you haven't heard from them, then checking back with them, if it's needed, is more likely to occur to them as professional and supportive of your mutual commitments, rather than pushy and disrespectful. 

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