The Art of Disappointing Others

I don’t think I’m only one who lives in fear of disappointing others. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my fear of disappointing others has led on a number of occasions to bad decisions, overwork, and ultimate (yes) disappointment. (Yes, I said eventual disappointment. Turns out that when you try to avoid disappointment you often end up with it anyway!)

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And yet, it seems I have trouble learning this lesson, and every time I am faced with the choice of disappointing someone else or rolling the dice and potentially ending up with one of the above negative eventualities, I often opt for the latter. In essence, I’ll do anything to disappoint others. To the point of sheer stupidity and bad business practice.

Last week, I wrote a post over on my LinkedIn Influencer blog about how I’m trying to grow up.

And by that I mean: I’m trying to learn to disappoint — even when I feel badly when doing so.

As my example in that article, I told a recent story of someone sending me a book about blogging and hoping for an endorsement in the process. I agreed to read it, but didn’t love it, and was faced with one of two choices:

  1. Explain to the author that I kindly was not able to support this particular book, but wish him the best.
  2. Avoid conflict by sharing the book anyway, crafting an innocuous statement that didn’t betray my true feelings.

Trying to be bolder in inviting the disappointment of others (when it’s the right thing to do), I opted for #1. And he didn’t like it one bit. He was angry. And offended. And I realized that this particular author believed that sending me a free copy was an assurance of an endorsement.

And at the end of the day, I was a sad.

Here was someone I liked and respected as a professional. I had no interest in souring our amicable relationship, and found myself wishing none of it had ever happened. But it did. And, at the end of the day, I think I did the right thing.

Even if it made me feel sad at the end of the day. 

Have you had to deliver some not-so-great news lately? How’d it go? Have you found the secret to telling the truth in business without letting others down? 


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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38 thoughts on “The Art of Disappointing Others

  1. I was recently a beta reader for an author. I enjoyed the book but I knew she didn’t ask me to review her book so I could tell her only how good it was. (I did comment on the good parts and told her so.) It was difficult giving advice to a person I know writes many times better than I do but I wanted her book to be the best it could be.

  2. Great article Claire. Wondering if you do have a process you follow when reviewing the work of others and if that was clearly communicated. Was the author also looking for endorsements from other subject mater experts?

    • Yes! And making them feel good about it and even laugh about it, whatever your opinion may be.

      We’re all in the middle of the most uncertain and high-risk situation imaginable. No one has any guarantees. It’s like we’re all in a giant random events generator disguised as a house of mirrors. No one really understands what’s going on or knows what’s going to happen next.

      If someone asks you to critique their work, that’s an enormous compliment. Tell them that, and let them know that you are not infallible, and that you could be wrong, whether you like their work or not. Why pretend?

      Very few of us have a crystal ball, and we’re probably all wrong a lot more than we’re right. The writer you think is bad may transform the world with his or her imagination. The writer you think is good may fall flat.

      There’s really no telling what’s going to work, and we might as well be honest about that.

  3. It’s an interesting concept to get clear on that’s for sure. Last week someone in Facebook said they expected more from me on a topic that I’d initially said I didn’t want to talk about. Irked, I said I was sorry about that but what did they expect and why should they have expected it when I said I didn’t want to talk about it?

    We sometimes do have to disappoint people and their expectations when it doesn’t jibe with what we’re trying to do. It’s a major leadership lesson as well; most of the time you can’t please everyone but you can try to do the best you can all the time. Great topic.

  4. Perhaps the person was not really asking for your view. It was their way of bragging about their achievement. If he truly wanted your opinion he would be interested in why you thought so. You cannot please all the people all the time. Doing the right thing is more important than doing what is easy. So you did the right thing. You don’t need to carry any guilt for it.

  5. I find myself in the same situation quite often; either I please someone by telling them what they’d like to hear or I tell them things as they are. On several occasions I’ve had to say NO without any justification because it makes me have peace within.
    OK well I try not to disappoint but I end up doing the same and I think it’s the best thing to do and I should stick on to this and remain REAL! I’d rather someone dislike me for being who I am.

  6. The secret is – There is NO secret. The truth is, is that we all need to revert back to the way we were as children when telling the truth was all we knew. Even when you didn’t like it you were able to go with your life without being damaged from the interaction. As open as this society “supposedly” is there are way too many people walking around in their “sensitive shirts.” Life doesn’t always give us what we want but we should always be grateful for getting the things we need – THE TRUTH. As time goes by I am sure your friend will appreciate your honesty, if he doesn’t, that’s on him and you can relax in the fact that you followed your own truth, not someone else’s.

  7. Hello Claire,
    I enjoyed your post. I feel that you received much great advice and some not as good. You know what is right for you. At any age we don’t want to disappoint anyone. However, we must be true to ourselves and honest to the person who is asking for our advice. Regardless the outcome tomorrow will be a new day and if they are a true professional. They will get over it and understand why you decided not to endorse his book. If he does not then he has to “grow up’ not you.

  8. Claire.. I guess your opening line meant `LIVES in fear of disappointing’ instead of `LEAVES…’.. which would have a different connotation altogether.. (and no.., am not trying to split hairs on the nuances but will presume you meant `LIVES in’..)
    I would feel concerned on letting down someone if I was responsible for creating expectations that were not met.. I would be less bothered if someone was disappointed if I did not meet expectations for a bar that was not set by me in the first place. The latter is often the case when your superiors tend to decide what you are expected to attain without your intent or inclination to achieve it, when you are personally aware of your limits and abilities to reach those goals.. and in most cases when these targets are set FOR you, rather than BY you, they are often set to be just beyond reach and few will achieve / over-achieve, for it would only mean the bar was set too low and that would mean I would be disappointed in the person who underestimated my capabilities, which again, like overestimating, is an evaluation I have no control over and hence have no reason to kick / pat myself.
    And in any case, disappointment and contentment are factors which influence my state of happiness and satisfaction and I’ll be damned if I will let others dictate my state of mind. I firmly believe that happiness is not something I should seek and pursue, but happiness is a STATE I CHOOSE TO BE. At best, I would be annoyed or amused at someone else’s satisfaction in my achievements or lack of them, even if their evaluations have a direct impact on me, as in the case where career evaluations may have a bearing on raises, promotions, etc. For this also brings into play the inevitable human factors of personal likes and dislikes, the rapport one has with the person holding those expectations and his/her tendency to be stingy or generous with criticisms / accolades. So as long as I am supremely confident is what I can and want to achieve and decide to what extent I need to strive to travel down the road to `perfection’, the concept of fulfillment will define when and what I should fear.. and disappointing myself is a greater fear than disappointing others.

    • Agreed.
      Especially (now who’s being picky on typos?! 😉 ) but ‘supremely confident IS….’ what we should all aspire to be aligning our intent with actions and behaviours and remaining as honest as we can be.
      I find there is more ‘disappointment’ when there is no response at all …

    • Jason, thanks a lot for the whole comment and particularly the last phrase. I agree completely!
      In my opinion one`s highest and ONLY expectation is not to disappoint him/herself. Otherwise you live your life by a foreign standard and follow foreign goals.

      • of course.. Contentment is often an alien concept when our lives are measures of gauges of successess and failures.. of expectations.. of hope.. which are quantified in terms of disappointement.. which is all fine, if you are the one who defines that scale for yourself.. the problem starts when others space out the graduations and determine the units on those scales.. 🙂

  9. For professions which profess to have a “Code of Conduct” or a “Standard of Business Practice” the element of Fiduciary Duty and the resulting penalties for a breach of these duties far outweigh the people pleasing knee jerk reaction to “negative” information that must be delivered to a client. (Commonly referred to as Ethics). Often, when we are honest, (those of us that have not lost that capacity), the discomfort stems from how the outcome might affect us, and not really the actual matter at hand. Case in point, and the reason Lawyers and Realtors often get maligned, is the moment in time in a business relationship where money is on the line and people count on their advisors for accurate information, all thoughts of commissions or winning the case must come secondary to giving the news and letting the client make a choice. Is this a lost art? Most of the time the negative charge of the actual facts can be neutralized if communicated in an honest and forthright manner. Approaching the person with trepidation can only serve to set them up to be uncomfortable. We have to get over thinking that we have any control what people think of us, regardless of the information we have to deliver. Honesty wins, regardless of the content.

  10. Claire te felicito por este post, es excelente. A mi me sucede lo mismo muchas veces. Cuando tengo que dar una noticia “no muy buena” intento ser amable, utilizando palabras simples y concretas. Y en ocasiones, una sonrisa. Pero, tampoco me resulta facil. Yo también creo que hiciste lo correcto.

  11. Thank you for this post. I feel everything you said! Almost every other day I have to give a client some no-so-good news. I hate it and I hate not making everyone happy. I can’t help but delivering the news in a positive voice and with hope that the advice i give them, they will do it, so i can help them in the future. Keep me posted on how to learn to disappoint, I need it for my rough exterior.

  12. Clare, in your example, if I were the person who sent you the book to review (and hopefully endorse), I too might have been offended IF and ONLY IF you just said that you couldn’t support his book without giving any reasons why not. However, if you had given him some constructive feedback on how he could improve the book, and provide some suggestions (and mind you, you would need to say, “suggestions only”) on how he could do that, he might have been more receptive to your not wanting to endorse the book.

    Whenever I have to deliver bad news, I try to make sure that I can cushion the blow some what by offering something positive. I think people appreciate input and feedback, as long as it’s done in a constructive way. In that way, you end up not really disappointing the person. Besides, I’ve learned to always put myself on the receiving end. In that way, I have a much better appreciation about how the bad news is going to be received.

    • I’m not sure I agree, Debbie. The reality is this person was asking me for a favor. I get so many books sent to me that I would never agree to provide feedback on all of them. Instead, since I read so much, I will agree to read a book and consider an endorsement if it sounds like a book I would like. But that’s the extent of the time I’m willing to spend on a such a favor (and is a lot of time in and of itself!) So when I choose not to endorse, there honestly shouldn’t have to be a justification on my end, and, sadly, I just didn’t have more time to provide constructive feedback. In my mind I had already spent a couple hours on the favor as it was;)

      Again, I think the problem here came from the fact that he didn’t understand the nature of a book endorsement. It’s a favor. When I ask others for one, I never expect it. I ask if I can send a copy of my book, and if they enjoy it would they consider it. If they say no, or if they read it and then later say it’s not a fit, I am always extremely grateful – as again – they did me the favor.

  13. Disappointment is nothing really more or less than a reality check. You think someone is going to like something, and they don’t. Obviously something didn’t click. Some piece of the puzzle was missing. Something wasn’t quite right. Knowing that is important information. The trick is figuring out what the problem was, and going back to the drawing boards and starting again.

    Saying “no” to someone is one thing. Saying “yes, but” is something else. If you want to encourage people to try again, tell them everything you liked about their work, and then tell them how they can make it better. If they take it positively, they can write a better book or design a better computer system or build a better mousetrap or whatever. And the world gets a better book or software or mousetrap or whatever. In that light, disappointments are among the best things that can possibly happen to you. It’s all a learning process, and without serious disappointments and major setbacks, we never really learn anything and nothing ever gets any better.

    If we want the world to be any better than it is, we’re all going to have to experience a lot of disappointments. Actually it can all be a lot of fun if we look at it in the proper way. There is really just no telling how great we can make the world if we learn to look at disappointments in a positive way. The main thing is to keep fighting to get better, no matter what it takes. There is really no such thing as losing. There is only winning and quitting. Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

    • The truth is that there are no disappointments, only surprises. And surprises are always portals to greater discovery. It’s all in how you look at them.

      • The title to this article should have been “The Art of Saying No Without Disappointing Anybody Ever!” That’s an art worth knowing about. 😉

        • I’m a big fan of CDO. I love her all out enthusiasm, nothing is impossible, and we can do it attitude . And that is why this article is so troubling to me. The art of disappointing others? Is that for real? Does anybody really want to learn that art? Should anybody want to learn it? My thought is that we should never intentionally disappoint anybody. It’s something that never needs to happen, and when it does it’s always a disaster. But make no mistake, intentionally avoiding disappointing others does not mean always saying yes. It can mean always saying no. All it takes is being able to say no in a positive way, and a smile always goes a long way with that.

          Nothing is perfect and even the worst pile of garbage ever written has some merit. Submitting your work for someone else’s review is always an iffy business. The main thing is that YOU like it. It’s an interesting but ultimately irrelevant fact whether THEY like it.

          If someone presents something for your review and approval, all you have to do and say is, “Hey it’s really obvious you’ve done a lot of work here and given it a lot of thought. I don’t get it and I don’t understand it, but don’t let that worry you. There are a lot of things I don’t understand and I don’t get. Maybe it’s just not my cup of tea. Keep trying. You’ll find your audience. Somebody somewhere out there will think it’s great. Good luck!” You can never go wrong with that kind of response.

      • HGB, Trying not to disappoint anybody ever is trying to please everyone all the time.. and it is already famously known, you can please some people some of the time, all people some of the time, some people all the time, but not all people all the time.. ))))

        • There’s no mystery about this. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A “no” can be the very best thing that ever happened to you, especially if you learn from it. Life is like a giant electrical grid. We learn from the positive charges. We learn from the negative ones. Sooner or later we learn to navigate the grid.

  14. I have made the same mistake too many times to count. I feel like such a wimp when I do. I have about 90% conquered it though. It’s usually when a customer wants more for less, or an unrealistic deadline. Then it comes down to disappointing now, a little, or disappointed a lot later. Go for a little, now.

  15. You definitely did the right thing! Disappointing others is obviously not a fun thing for anyone, but sometimes it must be done. If there’s one thing I learned in college, it’s that you should always just keep it 100% real. People may get offended or butthurt by whatever, but eventually, they’ll get over it and you won’t have had to sway from your beliefs at all!

  16. I learned a long time ago when the decision is between pleasing others and having peace within myself – I always choose to be at peace in my soul. And generally I find that when I handle the let down truthfully and authentically that even though they may be temporarily upset, in the end they appreciate me dealing with them with honesty and authenticity. You’d be surprised when handled appropriately with kindness how often will come back to thank you for being genuine. Your constructive feedback can easily set them up for greater success even if you chose not to endorse their book.

  17. Thank you, great post Claire
    May I speak directly and lose my own fear of disappointing you?!
    When I speak of my fear of disappointing you in my response, then it is my fear to own and it is also my perception to own in anticipating that you going to be disappointed.
    Once I spot my fear and my perception, then I can choose to speak directly to you, in accordance with my values, my truth. In Jewish Kabbalah it’s called “Being in one’s Tiferet”, which is in my soul or heart, as opposed to my ego.
    Yes, I recognise the above scenario, especially when I anticipate that the person is after a desired outcome, in this case a great book review! I discovered that my fear of disappointing others isn’t actually about disappointing them. It’s about me not wanting to feel judged and abandoned in return if they don’t agree with what I say / do. Yet when I went deeper it was me doing the judging and abandoning of myself, not them!
    So I’m turning it around. Not there yet, sainthood isn’t that easy! But I’m now happy to say what you said. For me it felt authentic and compassionate. And if they don’t like it and they’re angry then do I really want a relationship with such a person? Someone who doesn’t see me and honour my truth?
    My answer is “No”, I don’t. Other people will come along who do see me and honour me.
    I’m learning that when I feel judged and abandoned then it’s my ‘stuff’, actually from early childhood. But what I’m doing is saying “Yes” to my authenticity and I love this. The people who are interacting with me now are happy with my authenticity. Which is great!
    And I’ve discovered that now I’m being authentic I can share my feelings, my needs and people are saying “Yes” to them and responding to my needs! How awesome is this?
    Keep going, it’s a journey and you’ve taken the first steps.
    Go well, love David

  18. I believe most people are afraid of disappointing others. But not at face value. Most people are only afraid to disappoint people who they think are a benefit to them. Are you afraid to disappoint the homeless man standing with his sight that you seen on the way to work? Or what about you sisters and her low life boyfriend who were short on their rent last month? What about your old gray haired uncle who lost his wife and is Linley and just wanted you to come over to watch the baseball game with him? His about the new girl at work whom your jealous if because of her youth and beauty? Did you help her when you knew she was making a mistake? Did you invite her to lunch with you and your peers at the office? We all want to think we are kind good giving people. But in this modern age I don’t see it. No I can’t find it anywhere… Very sad.

    • Hi Ralph,
      Are you talking about disappointing someone or people being selfish? Although they can go hand in hand I believe they are different.
      I think we should look at disappointing others on different levels. Personal, Professional etc.
      On a professional level I believe it is easier if you are honest. Perhaps the person may not like or even agree with what is being said however as time passes I believe they will appreciate the honesty and respect you more for it.
      On a personal level disappointing someone is much harder mainly because I try to understand how what I am doing or saying would make me feel if the roles are reversed. Even if it is honest. Sometimes it is best unsaid or undone. It is also very hard to repair a relationship if you continually disappoint someone on a personal level.