Preparation 2 — Learning to Decline When We Can’t Deliver or Delay

Preparation 2 — Learning to Decline When We Can’t Deliver or Delay

This is part of a presently ongoing series about Preparation. Each post has been made more or less self-contained, and refers to other portions of the series and elsewhere when helpful. They can be read in any order, though they thematically still build on one another in sequence, and I recommend reading them from the beginning. To be notified when a new entry is released, and to receive instant notifications for any other updates on the site, please head here. Feel free to give me feedback on any of them as well, either in the comments below them, or by contacting me—particularly if there is something specific that should be addressed as the series progresses.

What Do We Do When We’re Not Prepared?


When we can’t deliver, decline or delay.

There are always going to be times when we’re caught with our pants down, but that doesn’t mean we have to walk out in front of a group to show off our underwear. Some of us happen to have exquisite underpants, but even we’re better off not approaching a podium when we’re braindead or broken. We’ll traumatize ourselves and our audience with things we both can’t unsee.

In situations like those, it’s best to call the whole thing off, or at least our part in it.

Declining — The Best Thing Most of Us Are Afraid to Do

I always list ‘decline’ first because it’s the less appreciated tactic. It isn’t ideal, but neither is making a fool of ourselves. If we’re certain we’re not up to the challenge in ways that may or may not be under our control, and it’s too late to do anything about it, some form of canceling or dropping out is always an option. We can soften the blow by making up an excuse, or delay something in the moment only to have it turn into a complete decline later on, but the core action of ‘don’t go through with it for our own good’ is the same. It’s rare that we won’t be penalized in some way for doing it, even if it’s on the level of our reputation, but I usually advise jumping in front of the lesser hit when we see many a potential blow coming our way to keep it from gaining momentum and hitting us a lot harder later on. i'm-sorryIf we go on to triumph in the future, people tend to forget or forgive our prior screwups, declining being among the most minor of failures we can make, in many cases not going down in history as a failure at all.

When an expectation has already been set — like an event scheduled or a meeting already made — being unprepared can lead to tragic choices where none of our options are what we’d like them to be. In many of those situations, however, declining to go through with things is often the lesser of two evils, particularly if we have a lot at stake in it.

  • In negotiations, walking away having made no commitments is better than being pummeled into a deal we’re better off without, like a car we can’t afford.
  • In academia, it’s better to cancel a talk than it is to say something ridiculous and ruin our career, being scrutinized on having said it thereafter until the day we die.
  • In politics, it’s better not to enter into a debate if we don’t think we can win it, because each public loss can lose us a race, while each private defeat is something for us to learn from.
  • In business, it’s better not to launch a marketing campaign if the one we have ready is really, really bad, and there’s really no hope for anyone buying the product that hasn’t been coerced or tricked.
  • In law, it’s better to let a case go if we’re only going to waste everyone’s time and are working on a contingent fee basis, as none of us ever get our time and attention back once it’s been spent.

None of those situations end with us ‘winning’ something we’re in no position to at the last minute, but they also don’t end in us being significantly worse off than we were to begin with. Though it can be courageous to go through with something when we fear we’re going to fail, it’s also foolish when we’re entirely certain of a horrible outcome. There’s having cold feet, and there’s going out to die against insurmountable odds. Keeping a commitment is one step forward, but thoroughly bungling it for ourselves adds two steps back.

Shutting Up Is Always an Option

It’s also important to decide whether or not we should be speaking. One of the reasons we often feel antsy about Rhetorically engaging with other people is because we know deep down we’re probably better off not saying anything, but aren’t aware ‘shutting up’ is usually an option.

Silence and absence are as much a part of Rhetoric as opening our mouths. ‘Null’ is often an appropriate response to something, particularly when we not only have nothing to say, but we’re that certain whatever we can say will only make things worse.

saul-interrogationThat’s part of the reason attorneys often advise clients not to say anything when asked in ways many of us are now familiar with thanks to police procedurals — in addition to anything they say being subject to later scrutiny in ways they and the attorney often can’t fathom at the time, they’re usually entirely unprepared to speak of anything, and in no state to say it. The reason that’s been coded into law in the U.S. by providing a right to remain silent is because that situation is such a common and relatable experience for many of us, despite being an alien concept to consider in other situations, largely because we’ve never taken the time to consider it as a Rhetorical situation.

It’s also why companies like Apple make so few announcements — though they make all manner of other uses of their silence to let rumors stir and publicize themselves to gauge consumer reactions with little effort, Apple’s a master of only speaking and letting out information when it is entirely advantageous to an extreme Rhetorical degree for them to do it. As their infrequency of response and public statement attests to, that’s decidedly rare at that level of business with such a massive audience, drawing mass interest because of it. Apple is bombarded with questions and requests all the time, and they likely decline the grand majority of them to great effect.

When in doubt, we could do worse than to shut-up by default, prepared or not. In some situations, that requires is to decline an invitation to speak, even if we’ve already accepted it.

We Casually Commit to Many Things We Shouldn’t

overcommitedWe also make commitments rapid-fire in an effort to please people in the moment that have a tendency to ricochet off unforeseen walls and hit us in the butt as time goes on.

In the same vein as the cause of our anxiety over a perceived lack of preparation being something other than our actual level of preparation, we don’t often feel ‘ready’ for anything when it’s something that in hindsight we never should have agreed to. We all get requests all the time for our time and attention, and it’s natural to feel bad for turning people down. The kindest of us can rarely open our email without a week’s worth of work suddenly filling out our schedule, or run into an old friend without being asked for a favor. Everyone’s sure we’ll usually agree to deliver because we’re not assertive or mindful enough to allow a healthy amount of social awkwardness.

Making a commitment is easy. It doesn’t take much effort, either. Sometimes we simply say “yes”, other times we simply don’t respond to the commitment being understandably assumed. Considering a commitment in the grander context of our lives, priorities, and ability to deliver on it isn’t always straightforward, however. At the very least, it isn’t something we can always assess instantly, despite a response now typically being demanded as soon as it’s made, if only by habituated expectation of everyone else replying rapid-fire to requests. overcommitmentIn situations like that, it’s best to defer by default to responding later in order to give ourselves some breathing room, whether it be with a catchphrase like “I’ll check my calendar and get back to you,” or something more ambiguous like “I’ll think about it.”

Making intelligent commitments is hard. It isn’t something we should make a habit of doing casually. If we catch ourselves in the act, declining should always be our first consideration. Particularly if we feel we’re people-pleasers, making a commitment to ourselves not to commit to almost anything in the moment we’re asked can be enough to turn our lives around in more than just our Rhetorical efforts. If we give ourselves some breathing room, we’ll usually find that we’re really saying yes to the people making requests of us, but aren’t adequately considering the requests themselves — the latter of which is what makes us later want to pull our hair out.

Many Opportunities Are Bad and Are Better off Declined When We’re near Enough to Realize That

When we say yes to most commitments casually without putting too much thought into them, we’re usually saying ‘yes’ to our relationships with the people involved so those relationships can stay on good terms or progress — because that’s what’s on our minds at the time — or the movie-trailer version of what we think will come of our commitment in an ideal world with all the actual work that goes into it cut out and under nothing but favorable conditions. What we don’t naturally consider when committing, however, is the commitment being a good fit for us, or our being able to fulfill it when the time comes to a standard that’s productive.

meetings-badOpportunities are all shiny and enticing. Not all opportunities are good, however, either in general, or for us in our present or future circumstances. Many opportunities are bad, and it’s a bad idea to take them. Not having taken one is better than taking a bad one, but discerning the difference is a Rhetorical act in and of itself. Valuing and weighing our opportunities is something we need Rhetoric to decide on and do, which if we’re in the process of learning it, will always involve a few missteps along the way. If we’re already in the process of being taken in by a seemingly shining opportunity, but later find it to be a diligently polished turd, best to get out of it while we still can before it’s too late, always being willing and able to walk away.

Meetings have become a whipping boy for this over time for that reason, as most don’t need to be had in an era of ubiquitous communication technology. Plenty of meetings actively detract from the ability of all involved to be informed and contribute when compared to other Rhetorical avenues like email, and are accordingly best prepared for by dismantling them before they occur. hang-by-tieAt times we can avoid outright declining by offering a more appropriate alternative in situations like these where we don’t want to speak because it’s largely unnecessary, and when we do, we’ll usually be thanked for it. These situations aren’t the primary ones that urge us to consider declining, however. Most are things we only realize were a bad idea after the fact, meaning they’ll need to be declined along the way — not because we’re unprepared to deliver on them, though we can be, but because we’re later equipped to realize delivering on them is a bad idea.

We’re never so close to a Rhetorical situation as to know that than we are right before we deliver, or when we start getting into the thick of what we could do to prepare.

Always Frame Our Decline Favorably

Relationships are what we manage when we commit to or decline from something, and there is a Rhetoric to them that isn’t beyond any of our ability to learn.

To decline something well is to tactfully subvert a potential or existing commitment.

At times, this puts any number of relationships involved at risk. Being mindful that commitments are themselves Rhetoric situations makes it far easier to approach them if we’re already learning Rhetoric because it isn’t entirely alien to any of the other things we’ll be learning. That perspective allows us to make more informed decisions that affect our relationships with others, rather than leave everything to chance and wonder over time why some people like us and others don’t when we start turning them down more often to the benefit of us all.

relationshipsThere’s more to saying no well than opening our mouths and hoping everybody gets over what comes out.

When we do decline something, it’s usually good to be explicit about our reasons — particularly if it involves people whose relationships are key to our livelihood, happiness, or concerns. It becomes more to vital frame our decline when it is relatively public, we had already made a hard commitment to do what we’re turning down, or allowed or created an expectation for ourselves to perform when it wasn’t necessarily in response to a request or invitation.

Unless we’re an idiot, we don’t decline for no reason at all whatsoever. No one but an idiot would assume we did. Not many of us go around saying ‘no’ like toddlers that have recently learned to like the sound of such a simple and powerful word. Even if that were why we declined, however, it’s Rhetorically careless to let everyone assume why we’re declining, as in most cases it’s not going to be in our favor. If someone was looking forward to the results of our delivery or relying on us to perform, they’ll likely assume things about us we’d rather they didn’t when we are breaking a commitment with them, as they’ve just been put into a poor mood to think about us in favorable ways.

No one likes being stood up, turned down, or canceled on without the accompanying due diligence of informing us as to why that happened to demonstrate value in the relationships involved. If only because the Rhetorically smartest of us have made a habit of framing and informing all concerned whenever they do decline, we do well to as well.

Particularly in adversarial situations like business, politics, or law, our opponents will likely frame our reasons for declining against us no matter what we say, making an already bad situation for us worse. Even if we really are too sick to show up for something and cared enough not to give everyone else the flu, if someone’s success is tied to our failure, they’re going to do their best to get everyone to believe the worst. Everything we do will make that harder or easier for them. As I’ve said elsewhere:

In Rhetoric, nothing is neutral, only momentarily irrelevant.


We should always frame things as best we can, and never leave them to chance. There are times when the context lends itself well enough that we’re better off not giving a reason because the implied reason is pressing enough and in our favor–such as the odd occasion that a venue gets rained on, or we’ve been hit by a couple of cars. Neck braces need no explanation.

Whatever our preferred reasons for declining may contextually be, we need ensure that the perceptions of them by key players are positive before we decide to keep our mouths shut. If our assumed reasons for declining an engagement aren’t in our favor, it’s Rhetorically prudent we frame them so that they are, and impart that to the people that matter most–at times taking into account that we’ll be competing with the Rhetoric of others working against us for their own gain.

Good Lighting Isn’t Lying, and Bad Lighting May as Well Be

We should never Bullshit1 each other in transparent ways, as that will only make things worse if we’re dealing with anyone that’s not an idiot. It isn’t ‘lying’, however, to paint ourselves in a positive light and make the unfortunate situation of our declining better for everyone involved. Ironically, failing to do just that affects us in ways similar to being dishonest.

Even though most people can relate to it, bowing out of something because we know it isn’t going to go well for us is a lot easier to experience than it is to sympathize with — especially if it leaves other people worse off, or falls on already unsympathetic ears. positive-light-paintThe world really is made a better place when we decline for reasons favorable to everyone involved rather than ones that only breed ill-will towards one another. As I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t dislike lying because we’re more interested in ‘truth’ in some abstract or moral sense, but because we dislike others taking an adversarial role against us2. If we don’t make the Rhetorical effort to paint things favorably when others believe we easily could have, we fall right back into that adversarial role, and piss people off as if we had been lazy and lied to their face.

Failing to paint things in a positive, public light affects us as having committed an act of disrespect to all involved.

Perception is reality in the Rhetoric of relationships. In most situations, it’s Rhetorically prudent to prioritize relationships over facts, the latter of which themselves are often open enough that we never actually need to lie in the more commonly empirical sense we use the term to refer to when we let people down gently. We can get by well enough by simply emphasizing the more favorable reasons we’re declining while leaving the insulting ones off, whether we’re doing it because they make us look bad, or because they make others look or feel bad.

Being categorical and vague are easy alternatives we can also use alongside that, such as referring to ‘health concerns’ or ‘family matters’ or ‘personal reasons’, the latter being an acceptable restatement of us declining an engagement because ‘we have reasons at all to decline it’. We accept potentially content-free excuses like that because most of us naturally want to get along and get on with things more than anything else. Taking into consideration that most of our commitments are so casual that it might sound odd to call them commitments, it’s relatively rare that we care about why someone turns a commitment down more than the fact of being turned down. It’s rarer still that we won’t eagerly accept a positive spin on being turned down because it’s typically exactly what we want to hear.


If we stop to appreciate how many of us try to let each other down when we value our relationships, anything we say usually amounts to us urging one another not to feel bad, the words being largely meaningless beyond that sentiment. When we decline someone, that principle governs all else.

Even if it would be strategically sound, it isn’t always an option for us to decline, however. In situations like those, we need to learn the Rhetoric of Delay3.

Footnotes, References, and Citations

  1. I use this term here with special meaning, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and will have that up as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series adapted from my next book when I can. 
  2. I’ve included a portion of this as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series in an article on Bullshit, which I’ll link to once it’s up. 
  3. Preparation 3 — Delaying When We Can’t Decline or Deliver | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
Series Navigation<< Preparation 1 — What to Do When We’re Not Prepared--|--Preparation 3 — Delaying When We Can’t Decline or Deliver >>
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Steven Rhyse has spent a great deal of time working in many colorful variations of Maker, Marketer, and Manager on a freelance and consulting basis, doing everything from editing to art on all manner of projects. His clients range from market leading companies and startups to small business owners and individuals. Designing, planning, and implementing new media solutions to business and marketing problems tend to be his primary roles, but he regularly makes use of his strong production and teaching background. Business, Entertainment, and Technology tend to be the industries he frequents most, often finding himself in the realms of Education and Health as well. He's also found great success as a private educator servicing all of the occupations and industries he just mentioned, among many others.

He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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