Have you ever needed to back out of a commitment?
Imagine this — your coworker asks you to take a leadership role on his next project. You’re so excited and flattered that you immediately blurt out, “Yes! That sounds great!”
Three weeks later, your inbox is overflowing, and your calendar is full. You realize that you’re overextended. You know that you retract your “yes,” but you’ve already committed. You don’t want to break your word.
No one likes to say no, and after you’ve already said yes, it becomes significantly more uncomfortable. You may feel anxious about damaging your relationships, developing a reputation for being unreliable or flighty, or being thought of as someone who’s not a good team player. These worries are more acute for the high-achieving, highly sensitive people I call “sensitive strivers.” They find it hard to set boundaries and are prone to overthinking.
Relatable? Then perhaps you physically cringe at the idea of reneging on your agreement and upsetting or disappointing someone else. It’s reasonable to feel that way.
Recent studies have indicated that our brains do not distinguish between physical pain and possible social rejection. So to avoid that intense discomfort, you bite the bullet and do what you said you’d do – even if it costs you your mental health or emotional equilibrium.
Regardless of your reasons for needing to withdraw from a commitment, whether it’s a conflict or a simple lack of interest in or ability to follow through, it’s crucial to back out with grace. That’s how you maintain solid relationships and a great reputation.
How to Back Out of a Commitment with Grace and Tact
Know the price.
Make sure you’re positive that you want to back out before you tell any stakeholders. There will be an opportunity cost, and it’s good to be aware of what that is before you do anything.
Say, for instance, that you’ve agreed to come on board for a new endeavor organized by your supervisor…but now you’re reconsidering your participation. Think about how important the project is in the broader picture of what the business needs to thrive.
If sticking with the project would let you learn to do new things, build new connections, or expose you to new departments, then it might be worth it to stay the course. But if the personal price is too high or your existing projects would suffer, then that means it’s time to find an exit.
Shift your perspective.
If you’re worried about seeming unreliable or self-centered upon your withdrawal from a commitment, remind yourself that it would be worse to stay somewhat engaged or not see the project through to completion. It might seem like you’re being gracious and accommodating by slogging through something you don’t want to do, but if you can’t deliver quality, then you’re risking your relationships, your happiness, and your reputation for strong performance.
And think about the good traits you’re demonstrating by bowing out instead. You’re displaying markers of leadership: transparency, time management, and prioritization, among others.
Be truthful yet diplomatic.
Keep your withdrawal concise, clear, and assertive. Make sure your communication is truthful above all, thoughtful and direct. For instance, if you’re leaving a project helmed by one of your friends, you could frame it like this:
“When you asked me to be part of this project two months ago, I had every reason to believe that I had plenty of bandwidth to get it done. However, after looking at my other commitments, it’s clear I am trying to do more than I can realistically do while maintaining quality. So I am going to have to change my yes to a no.”
By offering a brief explanation of why you came to your decision, you make it more likely that the news you’re delivering will be better received. As an example, you could say, “When we talked about the possibility of bringing me on board, I had no idea that I’d be assigned to another huge project in addition to yours. Since that is exactly what happened, I have to withdraw.”
If you need to leave a project with your boss, you could explain, “I recently reviewed my priorities, and if I continue in this capacity, I would not be able to maintain the same level of excellence in my core responsibilities. That would not be a good choice for either the team or myself. So I must respectfully decline and step down.”
Protect the relationship.
It’s appropriate to offer an apology and to own your responsibility for misunderstandings, mistakes, or simply misjudging how much you could comfortably take on. The other party was relying on you and could have been strategizing under the assumption that you’d be participating fully until the end.
To return to the example of leaving the project, you might say, “I apologize for any inconvenience. I’m excited to hear how everything works out.” By showing that you’re grateful and ending on an upbeat note, you show compassion and care.
Propose an alternative.
Suggest a new timeline or reschedule the date if you sincerely want to move forward with the commitment you’re rethinking. You can leave the possibility of a future yes open by saying something like, “After looking at my calendar, I’ve realized that I need to change my answer and say no to this for now. I hope you’ll circle back around with me in the future. Can we talk about this again in a few months?”
In order to avoid leaving the other person in a bind, you can offer an alternative. Maybe you could connect the person with a colleague who could assist them or a freelancer they could work with. Perhaps you share a resource that the person would find helpful, like a podcast, a training program, or a community that can solve the problem or address their needs.
Learn from your experience.
While it’s uncomfortable and unenjoyable to withdraw from a commitment, it can offer a valuable lesson along with an opportunity to fight against people-pleasing tendencies that could be keeping you from advancement. Take this opportunity to learn and to enhance your discernment regarding commitments you make in the future. Save your yeses for opportunities that excite you and that you have time to see through.
Regardless of how considerate you are, it may be necessary from time to time to change your mind or replace your yes with a no. This is not something you want to make a habit of doing. For the best possible outcome, make a point of approaching situations like these with discernment and sensitivity.