There’s no way around it: rejection is extremely painful. But it’s also part of life. Whether your significant other breaks your heart, you don’t get the job or into the school or program that you’d dreamt of, a family member lets you down, or a friendship falls apart, there is a certain type of grieving that comes with rejection. It’s universal. These kinds of conversations are never easy and can often be more than a bit uncomfortable, but that’s just a part of it. As Josh Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Web radio show told me, “You have to be willing, if you want to reject somebody in a humane way, to be with them while they’re uncomfortable and you’re uncomfortable. And if you can’t handle that, you’re not ready to reject them in a humane way.”
Of course most people, when rejecting others, want to do so in a way that’s as kind and gentle as possible. You don’t want to crush the other person, leaving them feeling broken or devastated. It’s tricky. Luckily, there are some tricks that can help you let someone down or disappoint them while still being, as Klapow called it, humane. Rejection and rejecting happen, but they don’t have to leave you—or others—feeling quite so down in the dumps. In fact, it can actually be a positive experience, as Susan Bartell, PsyD, psychologist and author told me.
“[T]he reason it can be transformative is because sometimes when you are rejected from something you thought you wanted, it forces you to take further steps to look for the next thing that you might want, whether it’s a job or relationship or whatever it is, and you might discover that, in pushing yourself beyond what you thought you wanted or beyond what you didn’t get that you end up in a better place,” Bartell said. “And that that rejection actually makes you think about yourself. [I]n the end, it can kind of push you to takes steps you may not have taken that ultimately are much better steps for you.”
Incorporating these eight tips the next time you have to do the rejecting can make the experience kinder for everyone.
Tell the truth
This one may seem obvious, but misleading someone about why you’re rejecting them really doesn’t help make things easier. Bartell told me that she believes lies come about because the people doing the rejecting are worried about hurting the other person’s feelings. While that clearly comes from a good place, it ultimately doesn’t do much to soften the blow. Honesty really is the best policy, no sugar-coating here.
Sweeping generalizations are never good. When it comes to rejecting someone, the more specific you can be, the better it is for them in the long-run. As Klapow told me, “A lot of times, when someone is being rejected, no matter what is said, they take it very personally, that it’s something about them, and so to the extent that you can explain why the rejection is happening and to the extent that that rejection is happening because of something that is not a personal characteristic of the person, that’s important for them to hear.”
Think about tone
Don’t forget that it’s not just what you say, but how (and when) you say it. Consider how the other person may feel once you’ve said what you have to say and then speak accordingly. “Tone of voice and timing are important qualities when rejecting someone, so remember it is not just the words you choose, though they are very important,” Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, a Los Angeles-based therapist, told me via email.
Accept your role
If you should shoulder any of the blame for things ending the way they are, or going wrong in the first place, make sure you voice that. Klapow told me, “[I]f the blame does not go on them completely, share your culpability, share your blame for the situation because again what you’re trying to do, when you’re rejecting somebody, really what you’re trying to do is to paint the most accurate light around why the rejection is happening, even though the person receiving that rejection may have a hard time understanding all of that because emotionally, it’s painful.”
If the situation allows, maybe you don’t need to reject the other person completely. Georgiana Spradling, Ph.D., an emotional intelligence relationship expert, told me “[M]aybe it’s a matter of negotiating, it’s a matter of compromise. So if you start the conversation with the perspective that you’re going to go in and get just enough for what you need, while at the same time giving the person part of what they need, then maybe the person will walk out of there not feeling completely crushed,” she said.
“It’s not about winning, it’s about negotiating and also setting that limit just what the limit needs to be. I think those are the most important things because otherwise you may not know the person very well and so you don’t know how they’re going to take that rejection, but you have to assume that a rejection is hard. An absolute no is hard for most people.” Take care of yourself without destroying someone else.
Let them share their feelings
While it can be easy to focus on everything you need or want to say and hurry through rejection without giving the person on the receiving end of the rejection any time to cut in and speak, it’s important to the process to allow the other person to express how the rejection makes them feel, Klapow told me. Expect that it won’t be a super fun experience. Rejection is difficult.
Practice makes perfect
If you’re feeling nervous about having to play the part of rejector and want to get the words, tone, and emotion just right, practicing what you’re going to say and how you’re planning on saying it ahead of time may be helpful. Bartell told me, “Sometimes I have people come to me and they need to fire somebody. I have them practice how they’re gonna say it, so that by the time they get to have to actually do it, they’ve worked on it and they’ve come to a way of saying it that does balance honesty with sensitivity with helping the person to understand that their life isn’t over, that kind of a thing,” she said.
“And so they did what they had to do, which was to fire them, but they did it in the most optimal way possible. I think practicing, bouncing off what you’re going to say to the person that you have to reject, is helpful. Do it with a friend or with somebody else.”
Don’t expect resolution
It’s natural to want to end a tough conversation with everyone feeling at ease, but that’s usually not how these kinds of conversations go. That’s okay. Klapow told me, “A lot of people do, they’re kind of trying to work this thing until everybody’s happy. The other person’s likely not [going] to be happy, so you don’t rush it, but you also are not trying to make them feel fine.”
Rejection isn’t easy
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the best ways to make certain that you reject someone as kindly as possible are to treat them with as much empathy, kindness, and respect as you would in any other situation. There may be anger and some ill-will, but kind rejection is healthier rejection in the long-run.