5 Ways to Let Someone Down Easy

How to soften the blow of rejection when declining unwanted requests.

Posted Dec 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

In a previous post, I explored ways of understanding and dealing with interpersonal rejection from the point of view of the recipient. What happens, however, when you have to be the one to let others down easy and decline their proposition instead? How can you say no in a way that minimizes the negative experience for them and the potential awkwardness for you? As it happens, social science research has some answers.

Freedman, Williams, and Beer (2016) reviewed the research literature on denying a social request, from both the perspective of those initiating a request and those refusing it. According to their review, there are indeed complex feelings and competing motives on both sides of that interaction. Nevertheless, as the authors note, there are also shared motivations that make a relatively smooth rejection possible.

To start, the researchers explored the various motivations and reactions of those individuals who have their request declined. They found that individuals who experience rejection often focus on restoring their self-esteem. From there, they attempt to find meaning and belonging again, as well as to reestablish a sense of control over their relationships.

The team went on to explore the motivations and reactions of individuals who decline social requests. Results of that exploration also found conflicting feelings arising from saying no. On one hand, individuals declining a request are motivated to spare the feelings of those making the request (a Protective Orientation) and reducing their own sense of guilt (Emotional Ease). On the other hand, such individuals are also motivated to protect themselves and their feelings (a Defensive Orientation).

Taken together, Freedman, Williams, and Beer's findings identify an overlap in the motivation of both types of individuals: Both are interested in minimizing the hurt feelings of the individual who is having their request declined. Put simply, no one wants the person making a request to have their feelings hurt (assuming the request is polite and respectful). Minimizing those hurt feelings protects the self-esteem of the person making the request and better preserves their sense of belonging, meaning, and control. It also allows the individual rejecting the request to stay safe, not feel guilty, and make saying no as easy as possible.

Tips to More Easily Decline a Romantic Request

Given the shared focus above, when rejecting an offer, how can someone best minimize the hurt feelings of the individual who is having that offer declined? Freedman, Williams, and Beer (2016) offer some answers. Specifically, their review suggests the following five tips:

  1. Reject the request explicitly. Provide a clear answer declining the request, either in person or through some other active method (e.g. phone, email, text). Something like, "I appreciate the offer, but I don't want to go get coffee with you." Such an approach avoids the confusion, hurt feelings, and repeated requests that might result from being more ambiguous or not responding at all (i.e. ghosting). While such a quick and clear decline may seem harsh or severe, it is actually the best way to spare everyone's feelings in the long run. Done in a polite manner, a clear answer also shows the most responsiveness and respect for the individual making the request.
  2. Convey some positive regard. To smooth out the explicit and clear rejection, if possible, convey it in a way that is positive and respectful too. This could be something as simple as "Thank you for asking," or "I appreciate the thought" at the start of a response. When necessary, this helps to build some momentary rapport and reduce the likelihood that the requester will feel disrespected.
  3. If necessary, suggest feasible alternatives. Depending on the situation, after declining an individual's social request, you may still need to interact with them in the future. This is particularly true when you have shared friends, go to the same school, or work together. In such situations, it can help to suggest alternative ways of interacting in the future that are comfortable for you. For example, one could say to a colleague, "Thank you for inviting me. I'm not interested in having dinner, but I do look forward to working with you." This also helps to highlight motivation for their positive behavior in the future, too.
  4. Avoid apology. Generally, people apologize when they have done something wrong—usually unintentionally. But declining an offer is not wrong, and it is done intentionally. Therefore, apologizing may send a mixed and confusing message. Specifically, it may feed into cognitive distortions about rejection, leading the individual to think you are rejecting and wrongfully hurting them as a person, rather than simply declining their offer for your own reasons. In the worst-case scenario, it may also make them feel obligated to 'accept' that apology on the spot rather than privately working out their own feelings in their own time.
  5. Match the response to the request and relationship. Overall, the length and depth of a response should match other aspects of the interaction. For example, a quick request made by a stranger on a dating site could be met with an equally short response. In contrast, declining a romantic request from a friend or classmate would require more detailed statements of positive regard and the suggestions of alternatives.

© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Freedman, G., Williams, K. D., & Beer, J. S. (2016). Softening the blow of social exclusion: The responsive theory of social exclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1570.