by Mary C. Schaefer

What to do when they don’t respond

Nov 16, 2016

It can be frustrating when you're waiting for a response from someone, and they're not meeting your self-selected timeline. You may need an answer, but don't make things worse in the process.

A friend of mine has started dating again. She had a first date. She and her date exchanged a few texts the week afterward. She’s comfortable with digital communication and the unspoken protocol.

Apparently at one point he expected a response sooner than she got back to him. His next text said, “Well, you lost interest quickly.”

Really? She doesn’t respond according to your timeline and this is your assessment? You can be sure there won’t be a second date.

I’ve been there. When you are waiting for an answer time feels far different than when you are on the receiving end. You may be a job seeker waiting to hear back from a hiring manager. You are waiting to hear a prospective client’s agreement to work together. You are waiting for a key piece of data from a co-worker.

Expectations and assumptions abound.

I used to complain about this to my own coach. She reminded me there were a number of reasons for a person to not respond – most of which have nothing to do with me. It’s easy to make up stories in your head. You create more peace of mind when you don’t make up stories.

What you can do.

Don Miguel Ruiz offers relevant advice in his book The Four Agreements. Two of those agreements apply here particularly: Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions.

Checking yourself helps you talk yourself off the edge, or from putting your foot in your mouth. When I’ve checked myself I realize how I could have alienated someone unnecessarily.

If I’m running up against a deadline and haven’t received a needed response, I often go with something like this.

“I’m writing about ___. I’m sorry if I’ve overlooked your response. I’m looking for (whatever) by (this date) to (wrap this up, proceed, etc.).

Depending on the context I might say, “If you have chosen to go another direction with this (project, proposal, etc.), don’t hesitate to let me know.”

You might have your own version of this type of message. Essential points include:

  • Avoid articulating negative assumptions.
  • Give the person one or more opportunities to save face.
  • Invite them to tell you what’s going on.

When the shoe is on the other foot.

I had a strange email exchange this year. I had met a woman in person. We discussed our businesses and exchanged business cards. She emailed me inviting me to get together. I chose not to respond. I did not take to this person. I didn’t want to encourage her.

Five weeks later she wrote me to tell me I was rude for not responding. I see her point. Yet I was surprised she jumped to that conclusion without making room for another explanation.

I was taken aback by her certainty. I experience people not responding to my emails all the time. They may be friends or respected colleagues. I choose to assume it has nothing to do with me. I follow up if needed, like I described earlier.

If I think it has something to do with me, I ask.

Yet if I am willing to admit it to myself, I could have responded to this woman with the truth. Maybe I created an expectation by giving her my business card. Admittedly, that’s a stretch.

I’m reminded of a TEDx talk by Caroline McGraw titled, You Don’t Owe Anyone an Interaction. You can call what I did rude, or a signal to the person that our interaction was complete. Like Caroline in her TEDx story:

“I wondered if I was being selfish… But then I realized that honoring my own needs is not necessarily the same as being selfish.”

Let’s assume we’re all doing the best we can.

I did my best in the moment with the woman who chose to call me rude. My friend did her best in managing the text she received.

My clients and prospective clients do their best to respond to me. My friends and respected colleagues do their best too. What’s true is we don’t have any idea what is going on. Assumptions don’t help us. Our assumptions can lead us to damage a relationship. Before jumping to conclusions, give yourself a minute. Consider alternate explanations. And if needed, reopen the conversation, graciously.