Handling Sales Rejection Without Becoming a Narcissist

It’s one of the hardest parts of selling—that knife edge space where company revenue stream meets interior personal psychology. It is business, and it is personal.

Most solutions share one problem; they are narcissistic, leading the salesperson to believe it’s all about them.

But it’s not all about you. And the sooner you build that insight into your selling, the better.

This is a topic I wish I had written more about in Trust-based Selling, so I’m glad to amplify it here.

Why Dealing with Rejection Messes You Up

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re not getting some rejections, you’re probably not taking enough risks. So if you avoid rejection, you’re avoiding risk; which means you’re losing sales.

But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image. That soaks up a whole lot of energy; it makes you inward focused and unhappy. None of which helps you as a salesperson.

So avoiding rejection hurts your business, and it makes you feel unhappy. Inability to handle rejection hurts you everywhere it counts.

The Three Usual Solutions to Rejection—and Their Weaknesses

There are three common approaches to dealing with rejection. I’ve given them each distinctive names. They are:

1. Endure it. This approach suggests there is some natural relationship between the numbers of rejections you have to endure to get to the good stuff. If you spin the wheel long enough, your number will come up. Get out there and dial for dollars.

The problem: it’s hard to treat prospects as people if you’re just counting their no’s.

2. Shrink it. This approach says. “It’s not about you, it’s not personal, you shouldn’t feel hurt.” Bring in the shrinks; think your way into not feeling.

The problem: it really is personal, it’s about as personal as it gets–and you know it.

3. Motivate through it. This approach relies on getting you ‘motivated,’ which usually means pumped up, psyched, and able to just play through the pain.

The problem: prospects don’t appreciate being bulldozed.

Why “Handling Rejection” is Narcissistic

All those solutions have one defect: they’re all about managing your psychological response to an issue called “rejection.” But rejection is an imaginary concept—a fiction, a figment of your imagination.

“Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you—that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism—a tendency to view everything as being about you.

(Not-so-ancient societies used to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the earth. There’s a very natural human tendency to believe that we are at the center of our own anthropomorphic universe, our own private Idaho. Much of growing up is getting over this idea, and most of us are only partially successful at it).

Instead of “dealing with rejection” let’s focus on what’s really going on in the real world—the world outside your head.

Curiosity is the Real Antidote to Rejection

Think of selling as a scavenger hunt. On a scavenger hunt, you go off into a relatively unstructured environment, looking for pre-defined items to collect. Of course, you’re interested in winning; but the game itself is fun as well.

In the game, you decide how and where to spend your time. You set priorities, and notice how and what your competitors are doing. There is skill involved in collecting the items. And you often end up in blind alleys when a particular path didn’t pan out for you.

What you don’t feel on a scavenger hunt is rejection. There simply is no such thing. It is not about you; it is just a process involving many people, of whom you are one.

All you need on a scavenger hunt is curiosity. And curiosity is a perfect emotion to bring to sales. Curiosity means you don’t have to ignore your emotions, or play through them, or convince yourself you’re immune to them. Instead, you’re just paying attention to a different set of issues. Let’s call those issues ‘reality.’

In the real world, nothing is being rejected; there are simply solutions and fits, or no-solutions and no-fits. It’s not a struggle–it’s a puzzle. If you’re a good solution to that puzzle and are curious enough, you might solve it. If you’re not a good solution for it, and/or aren’t curious, then you probably won’t.

So where’s ‘rejection’ in all this? In your head. So just stop it.

Three Steps You Can Take to Reject Rejection

1. Make a list of questions you’d like to know about each of your key prospects. Real questions, things you’d really like to learn.

2. Just as you would in a scavenger hunt, keep track of what you’ve learned at each blind alley. You don’t win scavenger hunts sitting back at the office; you learn it going out and finding blind ends.

3. Be alive. Have fun. Keep your ears open. There’s no point in blinding your senses in a scavenger hunt; why blind your emotions in the sales hunt? Just use them to figure out the puzzle.

Did the post-Copernican western world feel “rejected” by the sun when they found out it didn’t revolve around the earth? Of course not–though they probably did feel deflated. But that was just because they were cosmologically narcissistic. You don’t have to be that dumb or that narcissistic.

Nobody can reject you without your complicity in defining ‘rejection.’ Any time you hear ‘handling rejection,’ learn to laugh at yourself for thinking it’s about you–and go back to being curious.

7 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Kristen, I’ve been tooting the curiosity horn for a long time w/ regard to sales and sales training. I’ve come to believe if one selling professional services doesn’t have an innate sense of curiosity, training can only move the needle so far. Training (even world-class training & coaching) won’t create the “new rainmaker” without that level of genuine interest & focus on the other person’s problem/business/issues/concern,solution etc.
    There are always a number of rationales to rely on for the lack of sales results: the economy, pricing, competitor inroads,etc. All of those factors can contribute to a lack of success at times but interestingly, others manage to thrive w/ those same factors.
    Rejection should be regarded as a learning moment…”I just wasn’t curious enough to learn about & then solve their problem”.

  2. Kristen Abele
    Kristen Abele says:


    I couldn’t agree more. But I must say, the thoughts above are actually Charlie’s. A slight flub in publishing the post and my name was accidentally hit instead. But along the line of what you mentioned, a true curiosity and interest has a real affect on our abilities to connect with others. This clearly applies across the board but its weight can be felt most acutely in business. Feeling that someone is truly interested in what I am looking for, in a sale, in business, etc has an overwhelming affect on whether or not I choose to even listen to the pitch in its entirety. Normally, when we feel we are being talked at, we shut down and stop listening. One of the best pieces of sales advice I ever received was from a colleague who constantly asked his clients, “what is it exactly you are looking for?” before even trying to mention what he had to sell. Starting from there he was able to build long, lasting relationships. The sale was never the first priority. The first priority was to make a connection, and if a service could be provided, great. If not, maybe another time. That genuine interest brought about lasting client relationships.

  3. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    You mean its Not About ME?

    Charlie, you make some good points and Curiosity is a key ingredient to selling. And yet, we can do it all right and still lose the sale…that is get rejected.

    I remember a large sale some time ago. It was huge for me and my firm. We broke ground with an organization that was a dream client. We were negotiating the contract and it was awaiting signature, when my firm filed Chapter 11.

    It was a tactic to renegotiate our debt and we were clear within six months but, the client in good conscience could not enter into an agreement with us.

    At the end of the day we as professionals have to do everything we can to secure good agreements. We have to be curious and discover, we have to communicate and ask our prospects to stretch and we have to stretch. We have to dot i’s and cross t’s and at the end of the day they can still make another choice.

    If we can then say to our selves “I did my best and then some”, then there is always the next deal.

    Finally we can often learn as much from losses as we can from the wins.

    Take Good Care,

  4. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Kristen, as I was reading I was thinking to myself, “…sounds just like Charlie!” Mea Culpa Charlie.

    To John’s point – there are those times when one does everything one can possible do and still not get the business. As stated, that is also a learning point because there are just so many thing within our control. Once one has conducted the evaluation of one’s actions to determine if there was any area that could have been improved upon and/or changed (for the next go around)…one needs to get over it & just move on.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Interesting stuff, Charlie; I’d like to add my perspective:

    “Object relations theory” is a major theoretical foundation of much of psychotherapy and it plays out here in rejection. For me (and my clients) I think it’s an important piece of understanding the “rejection” experience.

    An object relations is a dynamic that includes (1) one’s self; (2) an object (person, thing, place, and the like) and (3) an affect (a certain emotional content – e.g., love, anger, fear or desire…) that links 1 and 2. The “relation” itself is not always visual or even mental. The relation can also be emotional, tactile, or auditory. The relation is an impression of one’s self or an impression of the object.

    Every childhood experience – pleasurable or not – leaves a memory trace as an impression of (1) one’s self, an impression of (2) the “object) (e.g., person, stuffed animal, aroma, event, etc.)and (3) (and this is critical) a feeling state – affect – between the two. The most basic and fundamental object relation is that of a human love object – mother, then father or primary caregivers.

    These impressions are the building blocks of the infant’s and child’s psyche. As an infant grow and receives impressions, these object relations build over time. And, over time, the child creates his/her self-image as a result of these impressions or object relations and then projects these object relations on to others.

    The deal is that the infant carries these object relations into life as a child, adolescent and adult, often unconsciously.
    There are numerous types of object relations and one that has a tremendous impact on the development of one’s psyche and one’s ego growing up, and later, is the “rejecting object relation.”
    The “rejecting object relation” usually shows up as a weak, small and frightened self (i.e., a child or a “child” in an adult body wearing adult clothes), who is fearful, even terrified of (some flavor of) a big, powerful, hateful, and rejecting “object” (parent, boss, client, colleague, acquaintance, or spouse/partner, etc.)

    The self-image one has is that of being not only small and helpless, but soft and good, while the “rejecting object” is powerful, large and bad.

    When one experiences this object relation as a child, or as an adolescent or as an adult, one tends to feel fearful (sometimes paranoid) and frightened in relation to people who seem powerful or in a position to reject one. When we understand this object relation and see its initiation in early experiences with parents, especially with what we experienced as “the bad mother,” we feel weak, lacking strength, courage or will, etc., and the object as powerful because the self (me) has projected my own power onto that object (person) – the result which is, a weak but good self – fearful of a powerful and bad object.
    That’s the short of it.

    So when you say, Charlie, “…But that’s not all. If you’re avoiding rejection, on some level you know it. If you know you’re avoiding something, you know you’re not doing what you know you could do; you’re not living up to your own self-image…” I would say that, yes, this person is living up to their own REAL (albeit sometimes unconscious about which they might be in denial) self-image and they have some other “idealized” self-image that is not REAL.

    When you suggest, “…But rejection is an imaginary concept—a fiction, a figment of your imagination…: I would suggest that that’s not necessarily so. We live rejection or fear of rejection in its millions of ways, shapes or forms every day. Maybe it’s imaginary; but at the same time, it’s very “real” for those who have experienced rejection very early on – and that’s just about everyone.

    As for, “…Rejection” is a belief that if something happened that affected you, then it must have happened to you—that it was about you, concerning you, because of you, etc. And that’s what I’ll refer to as narcissism—a tendency to view everything as being about you….” And again for those who suffered rejection as a child, it did happen to them. And it’s still a part of who they are – body, mind and spirit.

    As far as an antidote, before curiosity, I would suggest self-love and self-acceptance. That knowing that I am doing the best I can with what I have and learning to allow self-love and self-acceptance to push aside the myriad forms of self-hate, self-rejection that we have created for and about ourselves over the years.

    Lastly, IMO, to suggest that “one get over it,” “shake it off,” “it’s no biggie,” and the like are suggestions that, more often than not, will cause another to react to you (outwardly in a public voice and/or quietly angry in their private voice) with another object relation in which they now see you as that “bad parent” – a bossy, dominating, uncaring, non-compassionate, heartless, know-it-all pain in the butt.
    Rejection is not a simple mental construct.

    Unfortunately in a 140-character culture, making it seem simple to overcome rejection (because someone told me to) is no cure for the wounding, hurt, trauma and pain that so many suffered so deeply, so young and so often early on.

    I think where the curiosity comes in is in the exploration of not only why so many are adversely affected by rejection but in the ways they cope with it that are self-defeating, self-deceptive or self-sabotaging.


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