How to Say No to Making an Introduction
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Last week I wrote about how to make appropriate introductions on behalf of friends and colleagues — a topic that is often challenging. The flipside can be even worse. How do you decline to make an introduction on behalf of someone else without sounding like a jerk?
The truth is, you should never make an introduction you don’t feel comfortable making. If you can’t vouch for someone’s qualifications or don’t feel confident that the introduction makes sense, than you owe it to all parties not to move forward — it’s never a good idea to waste other people’s time or your own political capital. If you can’t in good conscience move forward with an introduction, here’s what you should do instead:
- Be transparent about why you’re declining the request
- Provide a consolation prize
- Offer to stay in touch and help at a later date
Last year, I was approached by an acquaintance who asked for an introduction to my literary agent. Robert was a Manhattan psychologist working on a self-help book. Initially, I agreed and asked Robert to send me an email overview of his project.
Unfortunately, Robert’s email to me was vague, lazy and not at all impressive. He hadn’t done his homework nor prepared at all for what was an extremely important first email. He didn’t sell himself or his proposed project in any compelling way.
I was in a quandary. Though I didn’t want to recommend Robert to Todd, I also didn’t want to be dismissive or rude. I had several choices. “Forgetting to respond” would be disingenuous and extremely rude. I could lie and tell Robert that his project sounded great but Todd was no longer accepting introductions. Or I could, as they say, man up and tell Robert the truth: he wasn’t ready for an introduction to anyone’s literary agent, let alone through me. I decided to go with the following strategy:
If you don’t feel comfortable making a connection for any reason, the next best thing you can do is provide some advice or guidance on what the person should do differently next time around (with you or with someone else) to make sure the introduction happens.
My introductory email to Todd had included an overview of my project, my target audience, my competitive advantage, key differentiators of my product and finally, a media and marketing strategy. (It worked by the way. I had several literary agencies interested in working with me!)
Sharing my introductory email to Todd served as a powerful example for Robert of why I declined his request. The difference between his email and mine was striking. Upon receiving it, Robert immediately thanked me for my generosity in sharing the email and acknowledged he had a long road ahead before reaching out to agents. Moreover, it didn’t cost me anything in terms of time or energy.
Other consolation prizes might include referrals to other people to help them with their cause (i.e. a proof reader or ghost writer for Robert), vendor recommendations (I don’t think Jon will be interested in partnering with you but I know you’re looking for a web developer as well and I have a good recommendation for you), or just additional insight you have into the topic (I’m sorry I can’t put you in touch with Susan but I’m happy to spend some time thinking through next steps with you). Or, as in the example above, think about what other high-value pieces of information you have lying around your inbox that might help someone else out.
- Be Transparent
I decided to be honest. I responded to Robert and told him that I didn’t feel comfortable putting him in touch with Todd. I politely explained that I couldn’t recommend him at this time–his proposal simply wasn’t fully-baked. I knew he wasn’t going to have success reaching out to Todd given the amount of work (or lack thereof) he had done. My introduction would have only served to expedite a rejection that would surely follow.
- Provide a Consolation Prize
I couldn’t give Robert what he wanted, but I could give him something extremely valuable instead — a template of what a great sample introduction email looked like I had worked long and hard on my introductory email — and there was no reason I couldn’t share my email with Robert as an example of what to do.
- Stay in Touch
Finally, after tactfully declining Robert’s request, I left the door open for future interaction. I offered to review another draft down the road if or when Robert did more work or advanced his cause. I said I’d be happy to revisit the issue once he had his proposal more fleshed out and I wished him the best of luck.
In the end, I managed to stay true to myself and decline a request I didn’t feel right accepting. I also managed to help Robert by giving him something of value even while not giving him what he really wanted. And finally, I did both Todd and Robert a favor — I spared them an awkward exchange that would have no doubt gone nowhere. I effectively gave Robert another shot by providing some guidance and advice instead of making an ill-fated introduction.