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<xTITLE>The Opportunity of Rejection</xTITLE>

The Opportunity of Rejection

by Sunny Sassaman
February 2021 Sunny Sassaman

I came across Jia Jiang's 100 Days of Rejection on a podcast while taking a walk and seeking inspiration. He shared his personal story of how rejection at an early age framed his future life experiences. He shares how rejection as a young child limited him as an adult. And he decided to do something about it: he spent 100 days intentionally seeking opportunities to be rejected. In addition to the pod cast, I recommend his TED talk as he incorporates humor along with his experiment.

The idea of rejection and conflict struck me. What if we looked at conflict as rejection? As a mediator, when we are able to unpack the conflict and uncover rejection, I can feel a shift in the space and empathy grow. Think about it: at some point he or she was rejected as he or she didn't have a need met and that rejection escalated to a conflict.

Rejection theory has been analyzed by different sectors. Psychologists look at sensitivity rejection. Organizations look at how rejection impacts career success. Sensitivity rejection occurs primarily in intimate relationships. One partner is sensitive to rejection and will escalate based on his/her own capacity to manage rejection. Interpreting actions of the other can escalate to a conflict based on limited information. For example, a request of the other that is responded to in the negative, “No, I cannot go out Friday night as I have to get up early for an event.”; or interpreting a response from a text as too slow, “Where were you? Why didn’t you respond?”. Rejection sensitivity can make it difficult for relationships to succeed.

Organizational rejection can occur when you are turned down for a job or promotion. Individuals in this scenario are undergoing the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. If the individual experiencing the rejection can get to "acceptance", they can be more objective about the event and frame it in such a way that doesn't diminish their own value.

For mediators, if we view rejection as the instigator of a conflict being expressed, we have the opportunity to impart and demonstrate curiosity and empathy for our client. If the individual expressing conflict has felt rejected (i.e. "I can't get my needs met; I keep hearing no!"), we can help them go through the stages, get to acceptance which then leads to getting to the root of the issue and collaborative problem-solving.

Back to Mr. Jiang. His experiment intentionally set himself up to get rejected (one of his examples is asking for a hamburger "refill" at a fast food restaurant). He realized that he needed to make some drastic changes to shift from rejection avoidance. His hypothesis is that by adopting the practice of asking for random needs to be met, we get more comfortable with risking rejection and we become stronger. My takeaway is that if we become more emotionally intelligent about the role of rejection in conflict, we can become more curious and empathic.

Working with the idea of the rejection/conflict connection is another tool for the mediator to add to the toolbox. Acknowledgment of risk taking where rejection is possible helps us to understand the impact. In working with our clients, we can help them to be better prepared for the next time rejection is a possibility and craft different responses. We can frame the rejection experience in terms that help all parties better understand how it escalated to a conflict, normalize and “rewrite” the conflict story into terms that provide an outcome that supports everyone’s needs.

Introspectively, I have reflected on how I deal with rejection. While it isn’t very fun to hear “no” or be turned down, I realize that most people want to please others so rejection isn't always easy to achieve. In analysis, “rejecting” rejection opportunities is another form of conflict avoidance. We actually up our reward potential and create different possibilities when we do make ourselves vulnerable to rejection. It could result in improved interpersonal relationships; it could mean a hamburger "refill". One never knows until one takes that first step towards that opportunity.


Sunny Sassaman grew up in Southern California and arrived in Portland, Oregon after 20 years of residing in Hawaii. Always passionate about fairness and access to justice, she became a volunteer mediator with Mediation Services of Maui before founding Common Ground Mediation Services LLC in 2001. She has a Master’s in Negotiation and Conflict Management from Cal State Dominguez Hills, is a former board member and president of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR), currently serves on the Oregon Mediation Association (OMA) board, is a member of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network (OEN), works in and provides services to private, non-profit and governmental agencies, has served as a lecturer for UH Manoa and WSU-Vancouver, and is a Reservist ADR Advisor for FEMA.

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