Killing Me Softly

What’s the best client rejection you’ve ever had?

I bet it was something honest, positive and unambiguous: “Thanks, I can see the value of what you do, but it’s just not for us.”

And what’s been your worst rejection?

Probably something like: “Oh yes, this is great, we’re definitely very interested. Please send a proposal, and we’ll look to start next month … or the month after… or perhaps after Christmas…”

This is often followed by a merry-go-round of calls and emails with them asking for more information or you sending polite chasers. Or worse still, silence.

While this sort of rejection is not intentionally unkind or impolite, it can be very frustrating and a gross waste of time for both sides. Without a clear “No”, without a firm close, there is confusion, and you could easily find yourself caught in a vortex of ambiguity. Do you chase them? Maybe it’s just fallen down their priorities, and they would value a reminder? Or should you hold back? After all, you don’t want to seem pushy (but you also want them to know you’re keen and proactive about their business…). 

And yet, not only will you have received this sort of rejection before; but you’ve also likely given it too – we all have!

So why do we do it?

Usually, it comes down to this: We naturally opt for the soft kill as a gentler, more thoughtful, and let’s face it, easier way for us to ‘let someone down’. After all, rejection is tough, for both sides. As business owners ourselves, we know the disappointment our decline is about to inflict on the other party. Not to mention our having to endure push-back or escalation in the sales pitch if the other party isn’t yet ready to accept defeat.

But… wouldn’t life be more straightforward for all concerned if we could just be candid, and direct?

How To Say “No”

First of all, it’s important to recognise the difference between a decision and the exchanges leading up to a decision. The former is closed and done. It ‘merely’ needs the closure to be communicated. How to do this in the most effective way is the subject of this blog.

Not to be confused with the others, which may take the form of challenges, or questions, inclinations, instincts, doubts (etc.), all of which are part of a process where the final outcome is not necessarily certain. These situations are about clarification, fact-checking and due diligence, so all require further work, not closure.

If you’re sure that it is indeed a decision that you are communicating, the best (/least worst) rejection should be:


  • If it is something that you can share, being transparent with the other party about the reasons for your decision will allow them to understand and accept it. This is always better than leaving them in a state of uncertainty or feeling the decision was arbitrary or ill-informed.
  • Of course, there’s a risk if you share too much insight that you may give the impression that there is room for negotiation or the possibility the deal could still be recovered. Hence why you also need to be…


  • If your rejection sounds anything like “Well I’ve been thinking… and weighing up the options… and I’m just not quite sure that…” then think again. You’re turning it into a live debate and in doing so, encouraging arguments and rationales as to why you should change your mind. 
  • There’s a good reason why the judges on all these wonderful talent shows use phrases like “I’ve made my decision, and…”. By framing the decision in the past, they make it a statement of fact, no longer up for grabs. It’s fixed, non-negotiable, absolute.


  • Sometimes when nervous or trying to argue the best case, we’ll throw words at the problem. We think that by listing every possible doubt or factor in the decision, we’ll overwhelm the other party with so many on-point objections they’ll have to accept our reasoning.
  • More often than not however it has the opposite effect. Too wordy, can sound a lot like over-excusey. It can sound fabricated, or over-rehearsed. The recipient should not have to read between the lines of what you say.
  • Conversely, there is always something quite impressive about the quiet confidence of being concise and to the point. Communicated well, a message like this will leave the minimum of chinks to be challenged and bargained around.


  • Check your facts beforehand, so you’re not having to make generalisations when put on the spot – you don’t want to be left open-mouthed and unable to give an adequate answer. The worst possible outcome is that your intended closure communication turns into an ongoing debate around some (ultimately non-fundamental) point of detail.


  • Stick to the facts of the situation. Don’t be tempted to make up extra reasons for your decision, as this can inadvertently hint at further negotiation “So, if we just resolve these issues then we have a deal, yes?”, “Erm, still no.”.
  • Take responsibility where appropriate and avoid excuses – there is no need to manufacture a story about your car breaking down or your dog being ill.
  • Of course there is honesty, and then there’s brutal honesty, so be sympathetic too and mindful of how you would feel if the situation was reversed.


  • Despite the overall declinature, you will surely be able to draw out some positive aspects that you can refer to – maybe the competitive pricing, or the professionalism of the proposal or the team. This will make the decision feel like a considered one, and that there are still positive elements that can be drawn from the experience.

Finally, ‘Be careful what you wish for’
So, we’ve discussed rejection, and how best to communicate it to others, and generally our recommendations above are founded on principles of ‘firm but fair’. It may feel tougher to deliver (and receive) at first, but is better for all sides in the long run. 

Ultimately you want to leave anyone you deal with feeling as though you’ve treated them honestly and with respect.

The responsibility that comes with this argument is that we also have to take it on the chin when being presented with a firm but fair rejection ourselves.

If you’re seeing a pattern where people seem to find it easier to give you a fake yes instead of a straight no, perhaps it’s a sign of something else. Maybe you’re not listening, or not picking up the signals early enough? Or possibly you are too defensive or taking business too personally? 

If this could be the case, step back and check yourself. – It’s up to each of us to be open-minded and resilient enough to take honest feedback and rejection when it comes. Otherwise we simply perpetuate the cycle.

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