how to move on when a potential collaborator suddenly stops responding

Little cloth ghost with sunglasses.

Credit: Getty

Ghosting is well known in online dating: after exchanging messages, and maybe even meeting in person, a person disappears forever, plunging into the online abyss. But this doesn’t happen only in the world of romance. It can also happen in science.

Having ghosted professionally, I know how emotionally devastating this experience can be. Lack of information can be stressful.

If a person clearly tells you that they are no longer willing or able to work with you, you can deal with the rejection and move on. But the ambiguity of ghost images can haunt you.

I’ve recently been ghosted twice, in quick succession. In the first instance, I contacted an expert in a burgeoning methodological area that was complementary to my own field, ethics and leadership in business and health care. I asked if we could collaborate and we discussed three projects that we would start working on immediately. In the initial Zoom meeting, my ghost-to-be was enthusiastic and energetic.

I sent a follow up email a couple of weeks later and haven’t heard back. I followed up after another week, and then a week after that, and still no response. My ghost was active on LinkedIn: every day he made multiple posts and liked other posts. I also sent them a few messages on LinkedIn, which they read but didn’t respond to. None of my emails or messages were desperate or rushed; they were clear and professional inquiries about if and when we could start the projects we had discussed.

I do not intend to send any more messages to this individual. Our collaboration is dead. Message not received. But would it have been too difficult to say, “Thank you, but I can’t work with you anymore,” and maybe briefly explain why?

The other experience was with someone I met in person at a conference and then went online. We had discussed writing an op-ed together and agreed that I would submit the first draft, which I did, and then I heard nothing. I sent another email a fortnight later, just in case the previous one was buried in his inbox and I didn’t hear back. I sent a final email several months ago asking for your thoughts on the first draft. So far, there has been no response.

exorcising the ghost

I have now accepted that my collaborations with these two ghosts are unlikely to happen. Hurt feelings aren’t going to go away completely, but I do have some tips on how to reduce the unsettling feeling.

The first step is not to blame yourself. None of us knows what another person is going through; maybe the ghost is dealing with a lot of stress. Maybe they thought they would reply to their messages later, but the time never came, or their email got buried in their inbox under an avalanche of other messages. Or maybe they no longer want to work with you and are trying to save their feelings by not saying no outright. It’s impossible to know, so there’s no point in blaming yourself. They made the decision to ghost you, but your reaction is completely up to you.

If someone doesn’t reply to your messages, follow the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule: don’t email them more than three times. And it’s important not to split up their messages, trying to figure out why they didn’t respond: your silence is your response, and there’s no need to play Sherlock when he’ll never get any real information.

To avoid feeling hurt and abandoned, mentally reframe the situation. Instead of thinking, “What did I do wrong here?” He starts thinking, “I really don’t know what that person is going through. It may not be anything I did. Stop blaming yourself and move on. There are many other potential collaborators to contact.

I strive to never leave anyone out: if I have a current or potential employment relationship with someone else, and I don’t want to work with them anymore, I tell them politely but clearly. Being silent and not responding is not clear or kind, and it’s also incredibly disrespectful. If you get drunk, exorcise the ghost by reframing your thinking and not placing unnecessary blame on yourself.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their experiences and career advice. Guest posts are encouraged.