How to Survive Rejection

A fact of life about selling anything: people are going to say no. They are going to say no a lot. Most of us don’t deal with rejection very well. Add some important tools to your arsenal to overcome rejection.


Here’s a fact of life about selling anything, your idea, yourself, your product or service, people are going to say no. They are going to say no a lot. Then they’re going to say it again. Rejection. That’s the essence, unfortunately, of what it means to be in the persuasion business. And most of us don’t deal with rejection very well. It makes us sink.

So how can we be more buoyant? The Social Science gives us some clues, two in particular. What do you do before an encounter to be more buoyant? The conventional view is we should pump ourselves up. Tell ourselves, you can do it, you’ve got this, you’re awesome. And what the research shows is that’s better than doing nothing. Better to go in with that positive self talk, positive, affirmative self talk than doing nothing. But a new line of research tells us that that might not be the most effective thing that we can do.

The most effective thing that we can do in many cases is something called interrogative self talk. Which is not saying to yourself you can do this, but actually asking yourself a question, can you do this, and if so, how. And the reason is, that questions engage us more. Questions elicit an active response. And so when you do interrogative self talk you begin to say well, yeah, I can do this and start articulating the reasons why. What you’re doing is you’re rehearsing, you’re practicing, you’re preparing. And that turns out to be more muscular than this nominally muscular form of saying you can do this and pumping yourself up.

There’s also some great evidence from Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania that did a landmark study of insurance salesmen, almost always men, in Pennsylvania. And what he found is that the single best predictor of their sales success was how they explained failure. They had a certain explanatory style that allowed them to explain their failure accurately, authentically, but in a different context so it was less debilitating. Seligman talks about what he calls the three Ps; personal, pervasive and permanent. And there are ways for us to undo those things, to make them less personal, less pervasive and less permanent.

Our tendency when something goes wrong is to blame ourselves entirely. It’s all my fault. And what Seligman found is there are ways to offer honest, authentic explanations where it’s not all your fault. The reason they didn’t buy is that they’re running out of money. The reason they didn’t buy is they have a brother‑in‑law who’s in your line of business and they have to go with him and they are giving you a meeting just as a courtesy. So that’s personal.

Pervasive. We have a tendency since rejection feels so toxic to say to ourselves this always happens. But it doesn’t always happen. If you think about it analytically it doesn’t always happen. And so if you rebut yourself in that way and say well does this really always happen, didn’t I close a deal two days ago, didn’t I close a deal last week, that offers a way to increase your buoyancy.

And finally there is permanent. We like to say it’s going to ruin everything. But very few things ruin everything. And so what you have to do is rebut some of our instincts about failure and rejection. And ask yourself is this personal, is this pervasive, is this permanent. And in most cases it’s not, even though it feels that way. Rejection feels like a catastrophe. And what the social scientists teach us is how to de‑catastrophize those things by making them less personal, by making them less pervasive, by making them less permanent and by rebutting this idea it’s all my fault, it always happens and it’s going to ruin everything.

And if you have a way to rebut that in yourself you’re going to be more buoyant for the next encounter. And this explanatory style is absolutely something that people can learn. And it’s something that entrepreneurs absolutely need to learn.

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Leadership and Motivation || How to Survive Rejection || Impact Guide (PDF).

Pink, Daniel. 2012. To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. NY: Riverhead Books. Chapter 5 “Buoyancy”.

Seligman, Martin E.P. 2011. “Building Resilience” Harvard Business Review, April.

Margolis, Joshua D. and Paul G. Stoltz. “How to Bounce Back from Adversity”. Harvard Business Review. January 2010.

Questions for You

How have I handled rejection in the past?

How could I improve my ability to handle rejection? How can I make things less personal, less pervasive, and less permanent?

Tools and exercises

What did you do last time you encountered a no, or a failure? Undo the 3 Ps: personal, pervasive, and permanent with respect to this failure. How can you see things differently?