THE single tear slid down his cheek and dripped softly onto my dining room table. There I was, alone with a middle-aged man, a stranger, unwillingly watching him as his emotions overcame him. His self-esteem had been defeated by his sadness and, in his suffering, a new enemy emerged: embarrassment, and it battled for supremacy. He covered his face with his hands before more tears could leap into our conversation. The deafening silence that followed was punctuated by his occasional sobs, which betrayed his attempts to compose himself.
I looked away, down to the table and the droplet sitting there impassively. In my confusion it somehow struck me that the tear was like a memento, but a memento to what? To my cruelty, or to my power or my guilt? Too many questions of the conscience go unanswered, never to be solved. They just nestle into the bedroom of your personality like an odd bit of furniture. But it was time for action: I needed to comfort the poor man. I tried to think of something suitable. Hug him? Seems appropriate, but maybe he’ll try to hug me back. Turn on some music? But which song? Maybe Everybody Hurts by REM, or (I’m) Bad by Michael Jackson? No, forget music. Maybe I could search Google on my phone. Has anyone written 7 Habits of Highly Sensitive People? No, pulling out my phone now would surely be the height of IN-sensitivity. So I looked to the politest people in the world and did the English thing. In my softest, kindest voice I said to the shaking cocoon in front of me “I’ll go and make us a pot of tea”.
In the kitchen the jug started to boil: hot, wet and shaking, a bit like the man in my dining room, but more predictable and with an off-switch. I wondered if by now he was feeling better, and it occurred to me that, like the jug, the man could boil over. Sadness can turn to blame and anger. Maybe he would shout and smash things, or even smash me. I returned to the room, tentative and with teacups in hand. Perhaps if he was violent I could use the hot tea for defence, or maybe, like a nervous novice with a gun, it would be more danger to me than to him. He seemed fine, and managed a smile.
“I’m so sorry about that, Richard. I’ve never broken down like that before. It’s just that this business has been my life for five years, and you were my last hope for funding. You saying ‘no’ was a body blow, but I understand and respect your decision.” I lowered the tea.
When he left, I cleared up, and looked around for the teardrop. It was gone. Gone like his hopes and dreams. All because I had said “no”. Some words are hard to say: “sorry”, “I was wrong” and even “I love you”, but the word “no” can be the hardest.
My experience is, though, that not saying “no” can be cruel. In business, false hope is worse than no hope. And even strong hints are not always enough. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” can get many eyes to light up and phone numbers eagerly passed over. I have now learned to say a clear “no” and offer a “cup of tea” to sooth the rejection. The “tea” can be advice or suggestions, or at least my best wishes for the future. After all, even grown men can cry.
Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.