Years ago, a friend told me that she isn’t one to burn bridges. If she ever bumps into a customer or colleague at the grocery store, she doesn’t want them to try to avoid her.
I’ve tried to take her idea to heart. I find myself envisioning a future day, 15 or 20 years down the road, when I’m pushing a cart down the cereal aisle and I spot a former business acquaintance selecting a box of Cap’n Crunch from the shelf. The person then sees me, and instead of spinning on her heels or simply giving me a head nod ‘hello,’ a smile appears on her face. She approaches my cart and engages me in a bit of small talk. I leave feeling better about myself, glad that I took my friend’s advice all those years earlier. Content that I hadn’t burned a bridge.
I’ve come to learn the difference between burning bridges and shutting doors involves more than just how nicely I deliver the ‘no’. While burning bridges leaves relationships in tatters and opportunities destroyed, shutting doors merely says, ‘I appreciate the opportunity, but the fit isn’t great right now. But let’s keep the conversation moving if possible.’
The surprising thing is that although my mind shifted from burning bridges to shutting doors, I’ve realized that effectively shutting a door involves not only a strong understanding of my priorities, but also an understanding of the perspective of the person who offered the open door in the first place. If I want to really maintain that relationship, I need to do more than say, ‘thanks but no thanks’.
Saying ‘no’ to an opportunity brings baggage with it. The other person may be offended and, no matter how gracious I am, they are still dealing with rejection. Rejection takes time to process and I need to afford the person the chance to do so. I may have said ‘no’, but they still have a need that must be met. One of the best ways to turn a potential burned bridge into a nicely shut door is to help the other person find someone who can meet their needs. By doing so, instead of shutting the door we are holding it open for someone else.
Make it a great day!
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.