Are you in a business relationship that’s going in the wrong direction? Or maybe it’s just going in no direction at all. Is it time to move on? I find myself in this situation sometimes and inevitably, I let things go on longer than I should because I don’t have the heart to tell the person that I’m no longer interested. I finally conquered my fear recently and I’m here with the play-by-play.

Why You Should Tell Someone You’re Not Interested

Imagine you’ve found yourself in a business relationship with someone and it’s not working for you. These relationships come in all different shapes and sizes: with someone you agreed to mentor, with a person in a business partnership, with a former colleague you’re still in touch with. Whomever it is and whatever the nature of the relationship, there are many good reasons to end it if it’s not adding something to your work or your life. Let me give you two:

Reason #1—life is too short for lackluster relationships. There are so many great people and stellar opportunities that you can’t afford to be investing your precious time in relationships that aren’t creating a return. (And I’ll be the first to argue that the strongest competition for your lackluster relationship is time alone thinking and reflecting.)

Reason #2—life is too long for lackluster relationships. Seriously, Craig and I have already decided that we don’t want to retire and that means I’m probably looking at a 50-year career. If I’m not proactively pruning the tree, I’m not going to be able to keep up with all the contacts I create over a 50-year career. I can’t afford to carry relationships that aren’t doing anything for me.

The Alternatives

Before we settle in for some good old-fashioned Dear John letter writing, let’s consider two other options. After all, telling someone that you don’t really want to be associated anymore isn’t the most fun thing to do, so we better make darn sure it’s the best thing to do.

Alternative #1: Let it Linger

Yup, one option is to put the relationship on the back burner. Don’t snuff it out, but don’t add any fuel to the flames, either. The problem with that approach is that the relationship will become a perennial headache. You get the “hey, we should have lunch sometime,” messages, and you’re repeatedly dragged back into the choice between a lunch you don’t want or a set of distasteful stall tactics. You’re left with unfinished business that exacts a small, but meaningful tax on your energy and your self-respect.

(I used to have this same kind of relationship with a suit. It was expensive, and a fancy brand, but I never felt right in it. It languished in the back of the closet. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but every time I wore it out of guilt, I felt gross. I donated the suit and am now a happier person.)

Alternative #2: Ghost Them

Another option is to end the relationship without acknowledging that it’s over. You could just stop responding to emails. Let the calls go to voicemail. Essentially, send the message without sending the message. That’s crappy. And it’s just an invitation to the universe to stick that person in the chair next to you at some important meeting in the future. Don’t be the ghoster.

How to End a Business Relationship

Ok, here we are. You’re ready to end a relationship, respectfully.

Step 1: Wait for an Entrée

It’s easier if you wait for the other person to reach out so that you have something to respond to. If they ask for a meeting, or ask for help with something, or even offer to help you, then you’ll have something concrete to reference. Choose an option from step 2.

Step 2: Make Your Move

Option A: Try a scale back

A very close friend and colleague of mine asked me to meet with the son of one of his friends. My friend thought we might be able to refer business to one another. I agreed to have coffee. It was painful. He tried too hard, oversold himself. I was definitely not going to be referring my clients to him.

Soon after, he emailed asking for another meeting. In my head, I was clear I didn’t want to invest in this relationship while at the same time I was reluctant to come off as unkind to someone who was a) a friend of a friend and b) in my relatively small industry. This is a good spot to shrink the commitment. You can usually do this respectfully by email. Try:

“I don’t have any [questions/issues/opportunities] that would warrant a meeting. If you have any, please feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to respond.”

Option B: Express a lack of fit

Another alternative if you want to be more definitive about ending the relationship is to talk about why you think it’s no longer a fit. For example, if you’ve found yourself mentoring (or being mentored) by someone and your conversations are doing nothing for you (or worse, they’re confusing or frustrating you), it’s ok to say that it’s not a fit. Rather than focusing on the negative, take the positive view and talk about what would be a fit. This situation warrants at least a voice-to-voice discussion. Try:

(mentee version) “I’m grateful for your investment in our conversations. I feel that my next step is to seek out someone who can push me in [different skill/industry/style].”

(mentor version) “I feel like our discussions have come to a logical conclusion. I encourage you to find your next mentor who can add value in [different skill/industry/style].”

Option C: Share your focus

I mentioned above that I decided to write this post after tackling my own hesitance to end a relationship. In that case, it was someone who works in a similar space and we were exploring whether there was a partnership opportunity. We had one video meeting and now he was requesting another. I noticed that I was procrastinating doing my homework for the meeting and I realized it was because it just wasn’t a priority. I have a really clear focus for the year, and I realized pursuing this opportunity would detract from it. When you think a relationship or an opportunity is interesting, but not interesting enough, try:

“I have decided not to pursue this further. I have set my three priorities for the year and I’m making a dedicated effort not to pursue opportunities beyond those priorities. I really enjoyed speaking with you and I wish you tremendous success.”

In All of the Above

There are many more options for how you can politely end a relationship that isn’t working for you. (And I’m happy to provide more if you want to reach out with a specific situation.) Regardless of what tack you take; the secret is to find the small intersection point where you can be both honest and kind. Be thoughtful about it. Consider the wide range of statements that could be considered true and choose the most generous ones.

Also, be direct. More words can create more awkwardness. You can add a little more context than what I’ve given you in the examples, but don’t add too much.

And make sure you take out the wiggle words. In each of these cases, my first thought was to add hedging phrases like, “I’m not interested at the moment.” If you wouldn’t want this person calling you back up in three months, then take that out.

My life provides a steady stream of intelligent, diverse, fascinating, fun people for me to interact with. I love these relationships! But having the energy to invest in those people, while still accomplishing my own priorities, means divesting when it’s not working.

What do you think? Am I heartless? Would you hate to be on the receiving end of a message like this? Or would you rather someone was candid with you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Further Reading

Enough is Enough!–Tips and Tools for Saying NO

Why you shouldn’t go to that meeting

The most annoying co-workers