How to tell people you can't help them

One of the hardest parts of humanitarian work is turning people away. You go into this work because you want to help people but the reality is sometimes you can't. Sometimes you have to say no - no to people who want and need and deserve help.

It never feels good to turn people away - for you or for them. So how do you do it well?

In this post, I'm going to share my top tips for saying no. Whether it's turning a family away from food distribution or telling a single mother she's not eligible for a cash grant, there are some good ways and some not-so-good ways to handle this kind of situation.

Let me start by defining what doing this well means. It means that you're clear and compassionate. That's it. It doesn't mean that the other person is happy about it. This is really important. Because we often get caught up in that - in not wanting the other person to feel disappointed or sad, or worse yet, to be mad at us or not like us! But honestly, what could be more human than feeling disappointed, sad and mad when you get bad news? You don't have to spin a "no" into something positive. It's actually pretty invalidating to do that. Your goal should be compassion and clarity.

So, let's start there.

Step 1 is to acknowledge your own feelings. Start by identifying how you feel about saying no. Guilty, frustrated, ineffective? Annoyed with the person who wants your help for putting you in this position in the first place? If you're struggling with feeling guilty, remind yourself that you're doing the best you can. And if you're feeling annoyed, try putting yourself in the shoes of the person who wants your help.

Step 2 is be clear. This one sounds simple but it is where many of us fall short. We either use overly formal bureaucratic language or we sugar coat the truth.

Formal language distances. It makes you seem cold and unfeeling - exactly the opposite of what you want. Compare "There is no further action for [insert your organization's name] to take at this time" to "There is nothing we can do to help you right now." Or even better "I'm sorry I can't do anything to help you."

The other thing you want to watch for is sugar coating the truth. It can be really tempting to make things seem more hopeful than they are. If there is some hope that a "no" will turn into a "yes" or another alternative will turn up, tell people that.

But when there isn't, don't offer false hope. Don't try to convince people that bad news is good news. Don't try to make it seem like you're saying "yes" when you're really saying "no". False hope is not kind.

And that takes us to step 3, which is to acknowledge the other person's feelings. Acknowledging or validating someone's feelings means accepting them, not trying to change them. It's the difference between "Calm down" and "Of course you're angry, anyone would be angry in your shoes."

Telling people not to feel what they feel isn't very effective, especially when their feelings are entirely appropriate for the situation. Telling someone that you can't help them and then telling them not to be angry, hurt, scared, disappointed or whatever else is not very realistic.

This step doesn't mean tolerating abuse from someone who's enraged or leaving people feeling hopeless. It means giving people time to react to what you've said, listening to their perspective, answering their questions, and validating their feelings.

So that's it. The steps to giving bad news are:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings
  2. Be clear
  3. Acknowledge the other person's feelings

Try them out the next time you have to turn someone away from humanitarian help.

And now it's your turn. In the comments below, I'd love to hear your best and worst experiences giving bad news.

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