“No,” he said calmly, looking over his glasses at her, then looking back at the proposal in front of him. Her proposal had the potential to shift the company culture in a profound way. And with that “no,” her heart sank.
What does that mean, anyway — when your heart sinks?
What it feels like to be rejected
In literature, it’s a way for the writer to say she was disappointed. But in real life, a more accurate description would be, “She felt like she was going to throw up. Her pulse raced, her face got hot, she broke out into a sweat.”
“No” can be the most confusing word. Often you go into a meeting expecting a “yes.” After all, your idea is a good one, you wouldn’t have suggested it if you didn’t think it worthwhile. You can already see your success, the victory parade and your name in lights! “Yes, Melissa had such a great idea!” So when you get a rejection, the physical and emotional pain can leave you feeling off your game for a long time.
Why it's important to bounce back from a rejection
Being able to deal with a "no" is an important part of our work world. Getting through a job interview, getting a promotion, getting a raise and getting more of what you want at work in general are tied to your ability to negotiate, to stand tall in the moments of tension that come up when you speak up. Without throwing up.
How do you deal with rejection when you put yourself out there, take a risk, ask for something big and important? What happens when you share your idea, then have it ignored or rejected? When you share a passing thought in the hallway with a peer, then have it laughed at or dismissed? These are all negotiations, all agreements you have to guide toward an outcome that works.
Why do we feel shame (aka humiliation) when we get a no?
Contexts in which we feel rejection
I can recall with perfect vividness the feelings I’ve had almost every time my ideas were shot down. There was that time I told my boss that I had been talking to the sales managers about what was happening in the field so I could give them a new sales tool that would really hit home. “Stop,” he said. “We don’t ask them, we tell them.” My heart sank (and I felt like throwing up).
And then there was that time I created a brilliant training program that gave new hires the negotiation skills they needed to blow their quotas off the charts… which the client declined and stuck with their current training plan that wasn’t working. My heart sank (and I felt like throwing up).
Oh, and what about every time someone misses a meeting with you, reschedules three times in a row, has a coworker take credit for an idea that was yours, a client that decides to go in a different direction, or your manager declines to recommend you for the manager training program? All rejections to get over (without throwing up). And that’s just focusing on work-specific rejection; of course, there are all kinds of other rejection to be dealt with as well in life, as well, including from friends, romantic relationships, and family members or parental rejection.
Why we're wired to feel shame — biologically
It’s easy to be defeated by rejection. Our biology works against us. I work with many women (and men, we’re all human!) who let the fear of rejection hold them back. They stop speaking up in meetings, sharing ideas, get quiet, put their head down and just do their job, all because of the shame they feel when they get a no, and they fear they feel in pessimistically anticipating that no (a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will).
This shame is rooted in our biology. Like so many of our annoying biological responses that worked well to keep us alive when we lived in caves but do nothing to grow our relationships or careers now, we have to consciously work to change it.
Back then, our survival was dependent on belonging to a tribe. We are biologically programmed to belong to ensure our survival.
When we feel a social rejection, we feel it deeply and it lasts for a long time. I bet you can remember a social or peer rejection much more acutely than physical pain. Science backs this up.
Why we're wired to feel shame — emotionally
When you recall rejection, you feel the SAME pain as you did the first time. Not so much with physical pain. Sure, you remember that time you broke your arm and you remember that it really hurt, but the acute physical pain usually doesn’t reoccur when you run through it in your mind.
Not so for the emotional pain we feel with rejection. Studies show that human beings’ brains react in the same way to physical and emotional pain.
When you rewind the tape in your mind and watch it over and over again, that moment when you shared your great idea that was rejected by your boss, you feel the same physical responses: your stomach gets tight, you sweat, your heart beats faster, or you feel like throwing up. This ability to re-watch that pain over and over (and over and over, for some of us) was the way our biology helped us survive. By making it sting so much worse than a physical injury, the mere thought of rejection ensured we followed the status quo to avoid it in the future.
Three steps to get over rejection and try again
1) What you think
Ask yourself: is this about me?
Usually, it’s not about you. Your inner critic may start to blame you, but don’t allow it to be the loudest voice in the room. Think about what you’d say to a friend in the same situation. Would you say, “Oh, you’re such a stupid idiot, why did you say that? You look so dumb now, everybody knows your ideas are the worst!” No, you would never say that to a friend. Why would you say it to yourself? Don’t. You deserve as much (if not more) respect as your friends. You’re a human being, too, after all.
If it IS about you, it’s time to get curious. After you go cry in a dark room alone, dry those eyes and find out why.
Look that rejection in the face, acknowledge it — and dismiss it.
Say to yourself, “Hey, that sucked. I feel this shame and embarrassment and I am not going to be beaten by it. We all have great ideas and bad ideas and great ideas with bad timing. We all do a great job one day and totally mess up the next. It’s part of being human.”
Don’t let it define you or do permanent damage to your self-esteem. Don’t let it shut you down or quiet your ideas, the good ones or the bad ones. Because you never know when a bad idea will suddenly turn into a great one and change the world.
2) What you say
Why did the other person say no? What is the rejection all about?
Without a reason, we tend to spiral into self-doubt, thinking it was just a bad idea. But more often than not, it has nothing to do with you or your idea. It’s often the timing, things that you don’t know about or can’t see from your position.
Asking questions to find out more about why you got a no is the key to successfully negotiating a yes for the next time, or even changing a no into a yes when you find out more. Often as you ask questions, you start to see that you can adjust things in your proposal.
• “I'd like to understand more so that I can shape my proposal for the next time. Can I ask you a few questions to be sure I understand?
• Asking if you can ask questions might at first seem redundant, but it has an important purpose. If you jump right into asking questions, those questions can be perceived as defensive, as “I need to know all the reasons why you think my idea won’t work because I’m hurt,” versus your real intent, which is, “I’d really like to understand more about how you see this so I can solve the problem in a way that works.”
• “Help me understand more about what you liked and didn't like.” Asking a question with “help me understand” is a way to diffuse your defensiveness. It also draws other people in to be helpful. You want to come across as being genuinely curious.
3) What you do
Keep asking, keep proposing, keep sharing and keep challenging the status quo. You cannot stop. Your action item is to not let a no to stop you. You must get back on the horse and ride again.
Check out the book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, which has been called “a powerful, inspiring, and practical book about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks.” Sandberg talks about the ultimate setback in her life, the sudden death of her husband. The powerful message in the book is one of hope and joy and how to get back on that horse.
Rejection — and the pain of rejection — is part of a full life. If you never get a no, then you aren’t taking enough chances. I know more than a handful of brilliant, articulate women who tell me, “I never speak up in meetings. When I look around the table and see the people who have more experience than me, who have more knowledge than me, and I feel too intimidated to say anything. Maybe after the meeting I’ll share an idea with the organizer, but I usually just go with the flow.”
And just as often women say, “I knew it was a bad idea when we agreed to do it, but I felt like everyone else in the room was so much more experienced than me. I thought I was wrong.”
The bottom line
Imagine what our world might look like if you took a chance, spoke up anyway and learned to deal with rejection by stomaching a no.
Bouncing back from rejection is a huge part of getting more of what you want in life and a critical part of negotiating every agreement. Those who ask for more, get more. And those who ask for more, get rejected more often! But you can get back into your groove more quickly once you understand how to deal with it.
Melissa Hereford will teach you how to negotiate with confidence. Get your free course, Take the Fear Out of Negotiating, on her website.