While there are thousands of films and love songs about dealing with heartbreak, there are far fewer about how to let someone down easy. It may be a less dramatic and less heart-wrenching experience, but rejecting someone can still be really painful, particularly when it’s someone you care for. With that in mind, there’s a right way to let someone know you’re not interested and a very wrong way that can lead to long-standing emotional scars or destroy friendships.
What does it mean to let someone down easy?
Your main objective is to let someone know you’re not interested in a clear, definitive way without humiliating, denigrating or embarrassing them. Obviously, this won’t always be possible. You can only control your own actions and aren’t responsible for how another party feels or reacts. But you can be careful not to act in a way likely to hurt the other person unnecessarily. That said, it’s important to be clear about your intentions because ambiguity will lead to further awkward encounters or potential conflict.
“I’m not sure if ‘easy’ is the right approach,” said Christopher Mitra, a life and success coach. “It’s better to let someone down honestly and graciously. One party has a romantic interest, and the other is not in the same emotional arena. Since one side has growing feelings for the other, it’s essential to set expectations immediately and not lead them on.”
Why is letting someone down easy a good idea?
Often the person you’re trying to let down easy is someone with whom you already have a relationship. It could be a friendship, casual acquaintance or someone with whom you share a group of friends. But even if that’s not the case, a soft landing means the other party is less likely to overreact and will ideally cause less emotional distress to both of you.
Being honest and straightforward is much more likely to lead to a positive reaction than being misleading or deceptive.
“By being honest and kind, you are letting them know that you appreciate the sentiment but are not feeling the same way," Mitra said. “It may be challenging for the other party at first, but you get to walk away with integrity and the hope is that they are grateful for the honesty.”
How to let someone down easy
So, how do you go about letting someone down without extraordinarily bruising their feelings? Keep the following in mind.
Put yourself in their shoes
As in so many situations in life, empathy goes a long way. Put yourself in their shoes, and consider how it feels to have someone you’re attracted to turn you down. Let that empathy inform your actions.
It’s tempting to avoid addressing the situation, but hesitation or dragging a rejection out just means more accumulated tension and emotion when the moment comes. Respond quickly, and things are much less likely to lead to a serious confrontation.
“It sounds cliché, but honesty is the best policy,” Mitra said. “Just remember that being honest does not signify that you have to be mean. If you can state your opinion while letting both sides walk away with integrity and pride, you’ve made the best out of a negative experience.”
Think about the place and timing
Mitra also emphasizes the importance of talking to someone in a private, quiet place when possible. Public rejection can be much more embarrassing and hurtful.
Both while turning someone down and in the aftermath, being respectful of the other person is crucial, particularly if you share friends.
“Refrain from gossip,” Mitra said. “Don’t make the other side feel like they are a joke.”
The best result comes from allowing the other person to retain their pride and dignity.
Be very clear
It’s natural for a rejected party to hold on to hope, especially if they’ve been trying to go from friends to dating for a long time. You have to be extremely clear and direct about your feelings and that they’re not going to change. Otherwise, you may end up in the same situation a few weeks or months down the road.
These kinds of encounters can be very emotionally fraught, particularly for the person being rejected. Do your best to remain calm and not get frazzled, even if the other person reacts strongly. People tend to mirror other people’s emotions, so if you’re escalating along with the person you’re rejecting, things can get out of hand quickly. If you remain cool and controlled, the other person’s response will likely be more muted.
While you need to be clear and direct about your feelings, it’s important to listen to the other person and let them know they’ve been heard, especially if you hope to continue a friendship with them. By the same token, if the other person doesn’t feel like they can continue to be friends with you, you need to accept that reality as well.
What if letting someone down easy doesn’t work?
The most challenging outcome is if someone refuses to take no for an answer or responds dramatically. In that case, it’s best to defuse the situation or disengage completely.
“If someone continues to be persistent, you should restate your decision and then ask them questions like, ‘Describe to me what you feel will change if you continue what you are doing,’” Mitra said.
“What’s great about a question like this is that it makes the other party contemplate both sides of the equation and think through the results. During emotional or stressful events, the reasoning center of our brain can shut down, and we aren’t able to make sound decisions. Asking questions makes people slow down and examine the events and can bring those reasoning centers back online.”
If that doesn’t work or the other person doesn’t seem open to reasonable conversation, it’s best to remove yourself from the situation and cut off all contact with them. It’s ultimately better for both parties to completely disengage than to continue to give them opportunities to overreact or prolong their poor behavior.
Rejecting someone can be a painful and awkward process, but doing it clearly, directly and compassionately can lead to a much better result for everyone involved.