Tip Sheet: Let 'Em Down Gently

Quash someone's hopes—the nice way.

By Matt Huston, published September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Boss handing out pink slip

Photo by Shutterstock.com

Everyone is forced to reject someone eventually. Nothing personal, right? Here are some tips for crafting a let-down that's considerate instead of crushing. 

Push The Right Buttons

When breaking up, you might rather provoke anger than depression, whereas sadness is easier to tolerate than rage in a laid-off employee. Pinar Çelik of Tilburg University found that blaming cognitive rather than emotional shortcomings (e.g., incompetence rather than a lack of warmth) will usually stoke anger; the reverse approach, meanwhile, is more likely to spark tears.

Let Money Do The Talking

Being left out can sting, but one Dutch study found that players excluded from a game felt less dejected if they received cash. Companies looking to ease out fired employees would be wise to offer severance, and dumping a significant other may go more smoothly with an offer to return any treasured gifts.

Empower Your Rejectee

Subtle cues can shift a power dynamic, a study at the University of Mannheim found. Try delivering bad news on the other person's turf, or while he is looking sharper than you. A rejector's body language—think eye contact and a relaxed stance—may also convey respect and help calm a rejectee's state of mind, researchers suggest.

Open A Door

No matter how delicately a topic is broached, rejection can feel like a door slammed in the face. When you can't give what's most prized, try presenting another opportunity, such as friendship or a job lead, instead. Countering exclusion in one form with inclusion in another significantly softens the blow, even when full acceptance is definitively out of reach.