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9 More Compassionate Ways to Say No

Be efficient, don't patronize, and don't make stuff up.

“I don’t want to go out with you anymore.”
“We’ve decided not to hire you.”
“I’ve decided not to buy your product.”
“I don’t want to hang out with you any more.”
“I want a divorce.”
“You didn’t win the contract.”
“You didn’t get the grant.”

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Every rejection is different. Declaring that you want a divorce is not the same as sending rejection form letters to hundreds of candidates not hired by your company. Still, there’s a general art to saying clean, compassionate “No, thank yous” that runs through all such communications. It's an art, not a science, and there’s no perfect formula for ending things. Here are 9 tips for how to think about that art:

  1. Concentrate on honoring them, not you.

    We often feel guilty about having to say no, and end up rationalizing to comfort ourselves, not the rejected person. Don’t do it. Keep your rationalizations to yourself. Own your decision. Don’t add insult to injury by saying, in effect, “I’ve decided not to engage with you any more. Now indulge me while I monologue to comfort myself.” That’s tacky.

  2. In a relationship, we share. Out of a relationship, we don’t.

    In a relationship, there’s an “us” to manage by giving and taking feedback. Out of a relationship, we’re just two separate people and live-and-let-live is the cleaner approach. Rejection is the transition from “us” to separate individuals but there’s a tendency to carry forward the assumption that we owe each other feedback. Keep in mind that your rejection communications are part of that transition. Signal it cleanly by not pretending you’re still working things out together through give and take.

  3. Don’t patronize by explaining how the world works.

    Here’s something that's common but unnecessarily cold: You submit a proposal and it’s rejected with a letter that explains that reads, "We receive lots of proposals and can’t support them all.” Well, yes, but you already knew that. In more intimate rejections, we find something similar—for example, being told by a partner who is breaking up with you how love works and that it’s always a gamble. As if you didn’t know that, either. Such patronizing explanations are what the rejecter needs to hear, not the person being rejected. They imply something like, “I’ve decided we don’t belong together and further, I’m more worldly than you.” It’s bad boilerplate. Remove it.

  4. Don’t make stuff up.

    You probably don’t even know all the reasons why you've decided to say no, but you may be tempted to claim you do or to make up simple reasons that let you off the hook and humor the rejected. But remember how closely people listen when you say no to them, so be careful. Don’t send them on a wild goose chase trying to solve a problem you made up on the fly just to justify your “no.”

  5. Acknowledge subjectivity.

    To feel final about a decision to reject, you may be tempted to assure yourself with high certainty that it’s the right decision. But while it may well be the right bet, it’s not a certainty but a subjective guess you've made about whether you belong together. Acknowledge the subjectivity. Don’t say, “This isn’t a good fit,” but something more like, “I’m committing to a bet that there isn’t a good fit.”

  6. If possible, offer, but don’t volunteer, honest feedback.

    Since they’re listening attentively to your rejection, it’s an opportunity for them to learn from your final feedback not what’s objectively true but one person’s subjective impressions. They don’t owe you a listen, but they may want to hear what you have to say anyway. Consider something like, “I have guesses why I’ve made this choice, and if you want to hear them I can share them but only if you want them, and only on condition that you don’t try to override them. I’m not reentering negotiation.”

  7. End it efficiently.

    No one likes to be rejected and some will try to delay it as long as possible by keeping the conversation going. Combine that with the sugar coating of “we can still be friends” with which we often paint the bitter pill of rejection, and it can turn into an open-ended discussion or debate. That’s not good for either of you. Though it may seem cold to just end it, in the long run it’s the kindest thing to do.

  8. Don’t let it go to your head.

    Some people end up doing a lot of rejecting—human resources professionals, foundation directors, and attractive, successful people. It’s hard not to let it go to one’s head and feel as though you’re the supreme judge deciding what’s good and bad. That makes for uncompassionate rejections and a distorted worldview. If you end up doing a lot of rejecting, offset the tendency to end up swell-headed by remembering times when you have been rejected and keep in mind that you will be again.

  9. Strive for kindness even if they don’t think you’ve achieved it.

    We often hear that there’s always a way to be kind. It’s not true. Because kindness is gauged subjectively, you may think you’re rejecting kindly, but for the one on the receiving end, it may well hurt and therefore feel unkind. The rejected person may well want to scold you for your lack of kindness. Maybe they’re right; maybe they’re wrong. Still, do your best to be kind when delivering rejections but don’t assume that your best can ever be perfect. Rejection hurts no matter how compassionately it's delivered.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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