HOW You Deliver a “No” Lingers Longer than the Effects of the News Itself

In the brain, any bad news feels like a form of rejection. Our brains process this the same way they do physical pain.

It’s no surprise that when it’s time to say no, too often people do backbends to avoid it.

There are three common tactics.

Ghosting: We stop responding to the person, hoping he/she/they will give up and go away.

Breadcrumbing: We string them along by never saying “no” and keep alive their hopes of getting what they want.

Blaming: We tell them all the things they did wrong to show they’re undeserving of this request.

Too often we spin the first two approaches as “I’m just trying to be nice.” The second one becomes “I’m just trying to be honest.”

What a load of crap! It’s more about avoiding our own discomfort, because we don’t want to be seen as the bad guy.

Here’s the truth. How we explain to others that we can’t give them what they want tells them a lot about who we are. And this impression will last long after they’ve forgotten what they didn’t get.

How can we responsibly and compassionately share bad news? Here are three practical ideas you can use the next time you’re in this situation.


My bookkeeper was retiring and I needed to find a new one. That meant asking for referrals and talking with several providers.

Yes: I had that moment of relief after making a decision on the right partner. It was followed by the dry swallow of knowing there were two others to whom I had to say, “No, thanks.” It made me feel squishy.

At the same time, I’ve been chasing around a chief human resources officer for a few months. He was all enthusiastic about doing communication training for his people and my ideas and budget. Then he fell off the face of the earth. Never returning my calls or emails. Including the one where I said, “It’s OK to say no to me — I just need to know so I don’t keep pestering you!”

It was time to pick up the phone and not put someone else through that misery.

I spoke with one woman and left a voicemail for the other. Both of them told me how grateful they were to know why I’d made my choice and that I’d taken the time to share it with them. This allowed all of us to feel better about ourselves.

When you can’t give people what they want, you can still give them respect. That may be the sugar that helps the medicine go down. For sure it allows them to feel better about themselves — and you. This makes your ongoing working relationship a lot easier and more productive!