From time to time (and some of us more frequently than others!) we make excuses for why we haven’t done something we should – or have done something we shouldn’t. Perhaps our boss wants information that we don’t have to hand, so we invent a reason why the data isn’t available. Or a colleague wants help on a project that we don’t rate, so we blame lack of time for failing to engage. Or at home our partner asks us to do something we don’t want to, so we invent an excuse for why it’s not possible.
Making excuses starts early: “he did it first” we hear little kids say when asked why they have pushed or pinched a playmate, or taken their pencil / rubber / ruler. As we grow up we become ever more adept at excuse-making, not only to others but also to ourselves.
Why do we make excuses?
Here are some reasons we make excuses:
- Laziness – can’t be bothered to….
- Fear – too scared to…
- Preparation needed – not ready to…
- Anger or irritation – don’t want to…
- Time – too busy to…
- Wrong demand – not right to…
Now some of these may be entirely valid reasons. For example if you are asked at work to do something way beyond your level of experience and skill, it may be absolutely the right thing to do to say no on the basis of “not ready to”. Or if you are juggling a career, a relationship, a family, housework and a social life and then your son or daughter’s school or club demands that you give up your time to make model space rockets, costumes, cakes or whatever else is “critical” this week, you may very well be “too busy to” do it.
The trick is knowing when (and how) to say a valid “yes” or “no” – and mean it. This will stop you just making excuses. We all know people who always say “yes” to every request, and others who say “no” some or most of the time. And usually this has nothing to do with how energetic, brave, capable, calm, or “un-busy” they are. It has much more to do with personality type.
Some of us love to be wanted. We are very happy to do anything and everything we are asked to do and really enjoy nearly everything we tackle. We’re often juggling lots of different activities. I’ll call this group the Smilers, and I recognise it easily, because I’d count myself as one of these.
Some of us like to be asked for help and then enjoy moaning about how put upon we are. Like the Smilers we’ll do anything but we do it grudgingly, and make sure everyone knows how much effort is going into the simplest task. I’ll call this group the Moaners.
Some of us are always stressed and in a rush. We may say “yes” when asked for help but will typically panic a lot and find it hard to get through our normal activities without being late, dropping the ball or cancelling. I’ll call this group the Hurryers.
Some of us are reluctant to get involved in anything. We turn down most requests because we guard our space fiercely. We may be shy and nervous of getting involved or we may be self-centred and unwilling to help. Either way, to others we come across as unhelpful. I’ll call this group the Loners.
So we have the Smilers, the Moaners, the Hurryers and the Loners. I’m sure you can think of others!
You’ll notice that the choice of group has nothing to do with how capable you are. You could be superman and still be a Loner, or you could be completely incompetent and still be a Smiler. It has much more to do with your personality and how you choose to project yourself in the world.
Maybe you’re happy with the group you are in. But if you are not, or if you love your group but still feel that from time to time you make excuses that disappoint others (and maybe yourself), what can you do?
As we have seen, excuses fall into different categories. I would argue that some are not excuses at all – but the way you respond will make all the difference to how your response is received.
Every time you want to make “an excuse”, get really clear on your reason.
If you have a genuinely legitimate reason to decline a request then say so. Don’t beat about the bush and don’t be apologetic.
If you are under-equipped to do something say so. If you are too busy, say so. If you think it is wrong, say so.
If you are making an excuse to avoid something because you can’t be bothered, ask yourself why? Are you tired and need a rest or a break? If so, be honest. Are you just disinterested in the issue at hand and that’s why you don’t want to make the effort? If so would it make someone you care about happy for you to be involved, and does that make it worth the effort? What’s the consequence of not doing it? Make your decision in the full knowledge of why you are making it, and then be clear about communicating it.
If you are avoiding something through fear, then this is a tough one. Ask yourself what you will gain by not doing it. And what will you gain by doing it? And what will you lose by not doing it? And lose by doing it?
If you decide not to do it, then don’t make an excuse. Explain that you don’t feel able to do it and if possible why not. Perhaps offer to do something else instead, or suggest someone else who might be better suited.
I’d love to hear how you tackle excuses. Do you recognize one of these personality types or can you name another group?