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Rejection Therapy:

How to Take "No" for an Answer

Neon sign that reads yes and no

One of life's most important lessons is to learn to handle rejection.

Rejection is nothing more than a "no"; something we hear often and learned early. It comes in many forms—not being selected for the baseball team, not being invited to the school dance, not being accepted into your college of choice, not getting the job offer or promotion, or worse, being downsized from your job, not winning the business, not being approved for a business loan, not winning your court case, or not receiving FDA approval for your company's latest drug. The list is endless.

No one wants to be rejected, but it happens to all of us. How we respond to rejection will impact our ability to be successful in the future.

Steve Jobs reinvented himself several times after the failure of the Macintosh and being fired from Apple. He started another computer company called NeXT, bought a little computer animation company from George Lucas called Pixar, sold NeXT software to Apple, and a few years later, returned full circle to be CEO of Apple.

Jobs' tenacious pursuit to make his "next attempt" was the key to his success. Instead of letting the rejection get the better of him and knock down his self esteem, he committed to succeed and did what it took to push forward. His example is hardly unique. Any successful executive's biography will include how he or she overcame rejection.

No, no, no!

There is no greater stage for rejection than sales. Although executive search consultants are not sales professionals in the strict sense, we are competing for a limited number of executive searches. The Alexander Group is smaller (but of course better) than many of the global firms with which we compete. Once we obtain a search assignment, we contact executives and managers who are happy at their company to entice them to our client. The opportunities for rejection on both obtaining the client and getting the best candidate to say yes are endless.

When I first entered the executive search field, I was unprepared for the amount of rejection and the many forms it would take. In the early days, I would make 100 calls before receiving even one return call. Rejection in the form of no response is even worse than someone telling you no. With a wonderful mentor, a sense of humor, and a commitment to not let it affect my self esteem, I learned that rejection is part of the path to growth and success.

What I learned about handling rejection:

There are literally millions of websites, books and blogs dedicated to handling rejection. One blogger and entrepreneur Jia Jiang decided to desensitize himself to rejection with a 100-day rejection challenge (documented here). His journey made several things clear:

  • The world of rejection is a place where the fears from such snubs are much more destructive than we knew;
  • However, with insight, rejection can be much less painful than we believed;
  • And, that people are much kinder than we ever imagined.

As a child, we are told:

Keep your chin up... Turn that frown upside down... Try, try, and try again.

And then as an adult:

This too shall pass... When the going gets tough, the tough get going... When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Here is what I have learned.

  1. Feel your feelings. Pent up feelings can be destructive, so feel the sadness, anger and despair associated with the rejection. Remember that blame, revenge and guilt are not feelings. It may help to talk to a friend about the rejection. If you can't do this, write out what you are feeling.
  2. Use rejection as a learning opportunity. Take the emotion out of it and calmly ask why? If your response is to start blaming someone, then you are not making it a learning experience. If you don't know why you got rejected, ask why in a non-defensive manner. With a little luck, you may get some feedback that will help you in the future. Be gracious and appreciative of this feedback. Reflect on how you can make changes for future opportunities.
  3. Don't take it personally. Whether you get a yes or no does not define you as a person. A no does not mean you are not "good enough." When you get a no, consider that you and the decision maker are not on the same wavelength and it would not be a suitable match. Just because you were rejected for one particular opportunity doesn't mean that you won't be ideal for the next.
  4. Believe in yourself. Follow your instincts about what you have passion for. Conquer rejection with a positive, can-do attitude! If you approach opportunities with a defeatist attitude, there is a good chance that you will fail and even worse, believe you deserve the rejection. In addition, if you do not believe in what you are saying, how can you expect anyone else to?
  5. Develop a sense of humor. People want to do business with those who smile, laugh, and don't have a dark cloud hanging over their heads.

Article updated January 6, 2020.

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Beth Ehrgott

Beth Ehrgott

Managing Director