• Leslie @ Mastery Coaching

I said ish, not at!

Nothing starts a meeting off on a sourer note than hearing, “Bill, you’re late. Again! The movie already started.”

The accusation stops everyone cold for a moment before minds launch into swirls of irritation and defense.

Whether it’s arriving in person or returning a phone call, email, or text, it’s hard not to be annoyed when someone didn’t appear when they said they would.

The person waiting is kept from something else they might have done if they weren’t anticipating your contact. Instead of the pleasure of speaking with you, they’re experiencing the tension that comes from being in an unsettled state and unsure of what to do.

Minds start rolling with typical questions of concern and then turn to anger as time progresses. Are they not going to show up? Could I have the time wrong? Has there been an accident? Should I wait or leave? How rude of them not to be here? Do they think I have nothing better to do? I feel dismissed and disregarded. And so the tone for your time together is set.

Life happens. Interruptions do just that, cars break, public transit is not precise, clothing needs changing, and even the most carefully planned preparation time can balloon into inaccuracy.

“But I’m not late, Steve. I’ve actually made great time getting here. I don’t know why you’re upset! I said 3ish, not that I’d be here at 3,” Bill replied when he entered the lobby at 3:05. “Plus, the movie didn’t start; the previews only just started.”

We expect people to show up when they say they will. On the other hand, people arrive when they expected they would, too. (Reread these two sentences. It’s essential.)

Expect is the keyword in many disagreements about time and almost anything else people conflict over. Combine the idea of expectation with when they said they would, and you have a recipe for discord.

Family and cultural traditions influence our attitudes and behaviors.

We also have preconceived ideas that define how we speak about time and how we define reliability. These powerful histories and individualized rules influence our actions and responses, yet we’re often unaware of them.

I was asked to speak to a group of community education teachers charged with helping parents learn ways to educate their pre-school children at home. The city program’s success (and future funding) depended on teachers meeting with a specific number of parent clients during the allotted time. Appointments were scheduled at clock time: 2 pm or 3:30 pm.

In contrast to the teachers’ agendas, the parents were tuned to their children’s unpredictable and flowing moods, nap, and snack time.


In their daily life as parents of young children, being available in the afternoon was the best appointment commitment they could promise.


The teachers were frustrated because they couldn’t meet their work goals. The administrators were bothered because it seemed like a simple issue: Make an appointment and show up. The parents and kids lost valuable training if they couldn’t be available during the appointment time. In many cases, due to cultural time differences, the parents didn’t understand why the teachers were bothered when they missed appointments.

How would you handle it?

In the meantime, let’s get back to listening to the differences between Steve and Bill’s viewpoints. (Meantime?)

Steve expected precision. Bill expected appreciation for the effort he made to be within his version of on time, which he feels has a 20-minute range. They’re speaking different time languages.

Here are tips for everyone to help reduce conflicts that start with simple disagreements like Steve and Bill had. Practice using more precise time talk to avoid the attitude hardening resulting from repeatedly feeling misunderstood and underappreciated.

What’s your definition of an appointment?

Commonly, it’s a commitment to being available at a specific time, like committing to be at a doctor’s office at 2:15 pm.


Sounds like a firm plan, right?

But are you going to arrive at 2:15 or be ready to see the doctor by 2:15?

People often underestimate how long things will take. Plan time to park, enter the building, remove coats and other minor actions that absorb time. Is the doctor going to see you at 2:15 or 2:30? That’s a big difference, especially if you’re planning on being out of the office by a specific time.

What if you were told, “The doctor intends to begin your exam at 2:30 and asks you to be at the reception desk no later than 2:15 so we can process your required paperwork. We welcome you to arrive as early as 2, but no earlier. If the doctor is going to be more than 10 minutes later than 2:30, we will let you know, and you may choose to reschedule.” (One can dream, right?)

What’s your definition of an appointment?

Is it different from an intention, which is an approximation of when you will leave or arrive?

Do you view an appointment with your accountant differently than you do a visit with a friend? Why? Do you clarify your plan, or do you assume your friend understands you’re agreeing to a range of departure time and not a specific time?

Please arrive for dinner at 5:48, sharp.

What’s your reaction to that? Does 5:48 sound weird? Picky? What’s the difference between 5:45 and 5:48? Like a speed limit sign that says 28 mph, it gets your attention.

The word sharp is commanding, isn’t it? Do you have a positive or negative reaction to it? Do you think, “Oh, ok, I understand the timing is important” or “Who do they think they are demanding me to show up when they specify?”

Time Talk Landmines

At A specific time on the clock and the least likely to cause a fuss


Ish A range of time that people interpret differently


Around Like ish. Clarify what you think that means


Soon Your sooner might be my later.


Later Your later may be too early or late for me.


Sooner or later What?


A few days How many? Make it easy and name a date.

Around Often interpreted as 15 minutes on each side of a specific time


Too Early If the person you’re to see isn’t ready, even 5 minutes before a specified time may be too early and throw off their schedule.


Wasted time Generally, it’s the time you waited for someone, but wanted to spend doing something else.


Afternoon Is that 12:15 or 3:45?


Early evening 5 or 7? 9 or 11? There are generational differences in this one.


Lunchtime 11 or 2?


Dinnertime 5 or 8? (Supper time? Tea time?)


Meantime Between this and that? Is this the time the bullies are out in force?


And the one that always drives me bonkers, "I'm always late." Can we talk about that? Are you interested in changing that? It's not funny, and your credibility is suffering.


Learn to hear differences in time talk, and take a minute to clarify what you intend and what others think will happen. You’ll make it easier for everyone, and you’ll help others learn to say what they mean and mean what they say.

In the comment box, share your stories about how differences in time talk have affected your life.

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