Imagine being an assertive, educated young British woman who is a single mother of a 10 year old boy in the 1860s and you are working as a governess/school teacher for the King of Thailand. What would be the most important request for your safety and livelihood?

If it were me, I would want to make sure that my lawyer looked at the agreement and there was a clause in there somewhere that prohibits me from having to sleep with the king! The significance of a promise and the persistence required to fulfill it was a surprise to me in the “King and I,” a musical based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowensgoverness to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. The story is about how the King hired Anna, the British school teacher, to help modernize his country yet what the underlying story is really about is love and courage. Anna wanted to be respected and treated seriously in a land where the King had over 40 wives! This musical’s lessons have stayed with me longer than the lovely Anna’s voice (played by Keli O’Hara who won a Tony award.)

Anna’s determination was evident at her first encounter with the charming and handsome King by stating that she was promised her own house when she agreed to take the job. She was not going to live in the palace. The King was aghast and couldn’t believe she didn’t want to live in the lovely palace…didn’t everyone want to live there?

Anna’s argument to the King was that in a modern world, people make promises and society’s mode of operation is based on people honoring these agreements. Without this, you are left with a primitive society in which a few dictate and everyone else is a minion with little power or rights. The King didn’t seem to understand and wouldn’t acknowledge that he had ever agreed to her promise.

The King’s lack of agreement seems to be an educational challenge to Anna. She continues to ask the King and his key minions for her own house much to everyone’s chagrin. As the story progresses, the King starts to be more curious about Anna, with a hint of a silent love affair beginning to brew. The King seeks out her advice, for example, as to what all of his wives should wear when a British dignitary is coming to visit. Anna wears these long dresses with what look like huge hoola hoops around the hips; in contrast, the King’s wives appear to be wearing silk slips. Anna helps the King’s wives make these beautiful hoola hoop gowns, minus one important detail that the wives tended to wear nothing under their slips, apparent in one of the funnier scenes as they bow to royalty! Other than the minor slip-up, Anna helps the King prepare for and manage the visit with the English leaders. After the visit was deemed fruitful, Anna grabs the opportunity to again ask for her house that was promised and the King finally succumbs.

This idea that making promises is a foundation of a modern society continued to haunt me as I left the theatre. It reminded me of how hard it is for me to ask for what I want in a personal or business relationship. Given that I am self-employed, I have to negotiate with many large corporations and ask them to make me business promises or what I would call commitments. I am always fearful that I will be flattened like a pancake from these behemoth organizations. So I do what any savvy modern women does – hire a lawyer! My lawyer has taught me to always ask for what I want – as all they can do is say no. I am amazed at how many times I get what I want. So, I can’t even imagine being Anna without a lawyer coaching her on the sidelines.

The struggle to ask people to make commitments is evident in many of my executive coaching clients – many who have a fair amount of power. One of my executive coaching clients we will call Sharon works for a technology company full of young people who all seem to believe that they can do anything and faster is better; so, she was grappling to institute clear agreements with her staff and boss. I had conducted interviews with Sharon’s staff and they felt that her expectations were not clear. For example, she would give a deadline and everyone would sort of nod their heads in accordance but there wasn’t a shared understanding.  If it didn’t seem like the staff could meet the deadline, Sharon would sometimes allow more time and other times, she would take over and finish the project. The result  left people feeling confused and demotivated and left Sharon having to work late. In today’s modern world, unlike in the 1860s, we place a high value on moving fast and on taking action. Taking the time to have conversations about promises and gain clear agreements seems so antiquated.

MP900386109But yet, if we don’t take time to slow down and make clear agreements upfront, the risk seems much greater to make mistakes, go in the wrong direction, and leave everyone frustrated. The modern day Anna wouldn’t need to have to keep explaining why agreements are so important; rather, she would get everyone’s attention at the start of a project and have a conversation that orients and invites people to gain clarity from the get go. And, as Anna also teaches us, there needs to be persistence and patience because it may take time to come to an agreement.

What might help our modern fast paced and stressed out workers is to remember that a world without promises isn’t one we want to go back to and that slowing down to make an old fashioned promise might be the beginnings of a new movement – the slow down to speed up approach! I encourage you to go to see The King and I at Lincoln Center if you live in the New York area as it may inspire you to ask for what you want and/or to read this month’s book, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Please let me know how it goes.

 

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