I’m Sorry, But I Simply Can’t

Over at Defending People, Mark Bennett is explaining to lawyers how to decide when to reject a potential new client, and what to do about it.

I have developed, and I suspect that most criminal-defense lawyers develop, an intuitive sense for when we shouldn’t take cases. I get myself in trouble when I ignore that intuition. So I listen to it.

As Mark points out, this is also good advice for avoiding trouble in other areas of your life. Your intuition about bad situations isn’t always going to be correct, but it’s always based on something that triggered it, and it’s not acting in anyone’s interests but yours.

His advice about what to say is also spot-on:

There had been one unfortunate incident after another, and even with prompting he was unable to explain the logical connections between the incidents and his immediate need for a lawyer. My “spidey sense” tingled. I told the caller: “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that.”

That is all the explanation that should be needed. You don’t owe anyone a justification for not taking his case… If you tell someone, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that” and he demands an explanation, be glad that your intuition has been confirmed.

This is great advice for every area of your life. There are no rules of social behavior or good manners that require you to explain yourself when you reject an offer from a stranger. Whether it’s the salesman who just spent 30 minutes showing you a new car or the guy at the bar who wants you to leave with him, you rarely owe them anything more than some variation of “I’m sorry, but I simply can’t.”

That’s not to say you couldn’t explain more if you want to, especially if you have a good specific reason for your decision and you want to help the other person understand it. So if you’re a criminal lawyer and the client has a matter of civil law, go ahead and explain. If you’re at the bar with your husband when a man offers to buy you a drink, go ahead and tell him you’re married. But if your reason for declining an offer is because your intuition is screaming “No!” then remember that you don’t have to explain anything.

Think of it as a form of rhetorical self-defense. By not offering an explanation, you’re keeping them from getting a grip on you. If you offer explanations and equivocations out of a desire not to seem rude, you’re just opening yourself up for them to take advantage of you. It’s one of the tools that manipulative people use against you.

Salespeople, for example, are taught to get reluctant customers to explain their concerns so they can offer counter-arguments. If you really want to know more about what they’re selling, go ahead and enter into this discussion. But even after they’ve addressed all your concerns, you can still say “no” and you still don’t have to explain yourself.

I’ve had salespeople get angry at me when I do that. I can kind of understand that. To them, it seems like I’m being childishly unfair and not playing by the rules. I’ve also heard of guys swearing at women who decline their advances without offering an explanation. Again, I can kind of understand. It feels a bit rude. Nevertheless, people who get angry because they think strangers owe them explanations are probably going to be unreasonable about other things.

(Some manipulative people will try to trick you into offering explanations by implying that you have  disreputable motives. Maybe the prospective client will accuse you of not wanting to help people of his ethnicity, or the pushy guy at the bar will tell you that, “I can see you’re uncomfortable letting yourself trust people.” A less obvious variation that you’ve probably seen is the salesperson at a high-end store who subtly implies that a person of your station in life wouldn’t appreciate what they have to offer. Don’t fall for these tricks by offering an alternative explanation. When someone tries this on you, it’s just more proof that you should stay away.)

Note that I’m not saying you should be rude to strangers when you turn them down. You should be polite. Maybe even excessively polite. But your politeness should not take the form of explaining your decision.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, but I simply can’t.”

If they press you for an explanation, just keep repeating your apologetic refusal.

“No, really it’s just not possible.”

They’ll usually get the message. And if they don’t. Well, then you can be rude.

4 Responses to I’m Sorry, But I Simply Can’t

  1. What – I’m too white for you? Is that it?

    I use that one on salespeople a lot, particularly telemarketers. You can draw it out just as long as you like.

    “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that.”
    Morphs into:
    “You know, I’d really like to help you, but, well, I just can’t.”
    And can grow:
    “The more I listen to you, the more I’d really like to help you out. This is the kind of thing I truly enjoy – but I just can’t. You understand, don’t you?”
    And continues:
    “Didn’t you ever have something you really wanted to do but couldn’t? You just couldn’t do it? Well, that’s what I’ve got here. I’d really like to help you but, well, I just can’t.”

    Eventually, someone will hang up the phone, walk out of the office, whatever. Remember that the key is to respond to every single question with a non-specific answer – “I just can’t.” with the added clauses of “You understand, right?” or “Sound reasonable?”

  2. That sounds about right at the start, but toward the end I think you’re beginning to enjoy it a little more than you’re supposed to. I guess that’s why you’re Mad Jack.

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