Reality Check: When You Don’t Hear Back, Maybe It’s Not About You

There’s a cartoon that’s often referenced in the literature on professional confidence for women. In it, a woman and a man are each putting on a pair of pants that is too small. The woman’s thought bubble says, “I must be gaining weight.” The man’s says, “There must be something wrong with these pants.”

Sound familiar? We take responsibility in situations that are out of our control to a much greater degree than men. We tend to internalize a lack of information as a negative, taking responsibility for something even though it may not have had a damn thing to do with us. It’s a classic feedback trap.

Silence is Decidedly Not Golden: Part I

A few years ago, I worked with teachers and principals on influencing education policy. My role as a consultant was to provide feedback on educators’ op-eds and help them negotiate the submission process – to decide which publication to pitch when and how long to wait before submitting it to another publication, etc.

When an educator I’d worked with closely didn’t hear back from her first choice media outlet after several emails, she concluded that it must not have been a very good piece and attributed her previous success placing op-eds to “beginner’s luck.” She was ready to give up, taking responsibility for the silence.

It was textbook branch walking: a term I use when we irrationally imagine the very worst thing that could happen and assume it’s the likeliest explanation. If the trunk of the tree is reality, every time we walk out on a new branch of “what if,” we’re walking toward fear and doubt (and farther from what’s actually happening).

I pulled my client back to the trunk of the tree and asked her, “What do we know?” This was her answer:

  • The newspaper industry was on life support, and journalists and editors were regularly laid off, leaving the remaining editors with an enormous workload.
  • This paper published one of her op-eds in the last three months, and papers don’t tend to want to highlight the same readers’ voices repeatedly.

My job was to help get op-eds published, and I was confident that it was a particularly good one, worthy of publication. 

While she never heard back from that first publisher, she ultimately got the piece published in a different news outlet and has continued writing op-eds and guest columns.

Silence is Decidedly Not Golden: Part II

Similarly, when I sent my first major proposal to a prospective client, my client didn’t respond for a week. It drove me bananas not to hear from her, and it was borderline impressive how much self-doubt I accumulated in such a short time.

There was a part of me that felt like I’d done something wrong by asking for the fee I’d proposed. I can’t tell you how many times I refreshed my email or called my friend Monica to have her remind me it was going to be fine. At my most vulnerable, I was tempted to call my client and gush, “I’m really sorry I asked for so much. I really love this work and I’ll totally do it for free!” 

I was experiencing paralyzing self-doubt that I was way out of my league professionally and my client was either horrified and offended or laughing at my proposal. Due to her silence, I found myself in a Feedback Trap, repeating a narrative to myself that I shouldn’t have asked for as much as I had. 

After the fact, another friend suggested an alternative, far healthier narrative that tested my assumptions. Her approach to fight branch walking went something like this:

Rational person: What are you assuming?

Lelia: The client thinks I asked for too much and is mad.

Rational person: Why do I assume that?

Lelia: Because I haven't gotten an email response.

Rational person: Why else?

Lelia: Oh shit. I see what you’re doing here. I have no other reasons.

Rational person: Ok, so what other conclusions could you draw from this data? 

Lelia: My client is on the selling my awesome proposal to her boss. Oh.

Had I used this approach, it would have pulled me back to the trunk of the tree and away from the branch walking that told me my client was pissed and I’d never get another client again. Ultimately, my client responded enthusiastically and paid the full contract amount without hesitation.

Rather than branch walking and becoming consumed with fearful scenarios until you hear back, enlist the help of a rational friend so you don’t internalize that feedback that, again, may have nothing to do with you.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.