A Freelancer’s Guide to Dealing with Difficult People

difficult-peopleDoes being a freelancer mean that you no longer deal with difficult people at work?

At first glance, it may seem so. As freelancers, many of us work by ourselves (or at least, we are not in an office surrounded by other people).

The challenges of dealing with Joe who makes loud personal calls from the next cubicle while you are trying to work or with Susie who hogs the copying machine to make personal copies are gone if you freelance for a living.

However, no freelancer truly works alone. We may be alone in our home office, but all of us depend on other people to earn our livelihood. At the very least, all freelancers must deal with clients. It’s how we get paid

While we may not face those everyday irritations that come from working with other people in an office, freelancers still have to understand how to deal with difficult people. This post will explain when you might find yourself facing a difficult person and provide you with some basic steps to take.

What to Ask First

It can be a shock when, as a freelancer, you are forced to deal with someone difficult.

“I thought I was done with that when I left the corporate world,” you might say to yourself.

While the daily challenges might not be as great, the stakes for dealing with difficult people as a freelancer are much higher–sometimes even your pay is at stake. There is one basic question to ask yourself when you do happen to face a difficult person. That question is–why?

Why is this particular person being difficult?

There are at least three reasons why a freelancer might perceive someone as being difficult:

  • Differences in communication style. There are many ways to communicate. Some people are more comfortable with a particular type of communication. For example, I prefer to communicate by email. As a writer, emails feel very comfortable to me and I love having the project terms all spelled out in writing. For several of my clients, though, email is not their preferred means of communication. They would much rather chat on the phone.
  • Differences in knowledge base. It’s natural, but wrong, to assume that everyone else knows and understands the same things that we know and understand. For example, a freelancer may believe that a client is deliberately trying to take advantage of them by offering a low price for a large amount of work. Sometimes, however, the client doesn’t really understand everything that goes into a particular project.
  • Differences in life experiences. It’s virtually impossible to know what another person is going through at any given time unless they tell you. This is particularly true when you are dealing with someone online who you have never met face to face. It’s important to remember that most people behave much differently when they are stressed or going through a difficult personal situation.

Once you’ve discovered why a person is being difficult you can decide what to do about. Usually, you have three options:

  • Salvage your relationship with that person.
  • Ignore the difficulties between you.
  • Sever your relationship with that person.

In the next few sections, we’ll explore each of these options in detail.

How to Salvage Relationships with Difficult People

Your first choice when faced with a difficult person should be to try to salvage the relationship, particularly if that difficult person is a client.

Even if the person is not currently a client, the freelancing world can be surprisingly small. You never know when a particular person might become a client or a collaborator. If you can help it, you should try not to burn any bridges .

If you’ve been able to discover the reason why a person seems difficult, you should be able to take some steps to correct it. In many cases, this may mean adjusting how you operate. In some cases, it may mean swallowing your pride.
Here are some specific steps to take for specific problems:

  • Communication difficulties. Try communicating differently. If you are comfortable communicating through email, but you sense that the other person is not comfortable with that form of contact, offer to discuss the project on the phone with them. If you are geographically close enough, you can even suggest a face-to-face meeting. Another technique that works is to say something like this: “I sense that we are not communicating as well as we could be. What can I do differently?
  • Knowledge difficulties. If there is a difference between what you know and what the other person knows, it is often possible to educate the other person so that they can better understand your position. If you choose this strategy be sure that you do it in a humble fashion so that you don’t come across as being arrogant or a “know-it-all.” Never, ever, belittle another person for their lack of knowledge about something.
  • Life experience difficulties. This can be the hardest problem for a freelancer to solve when they are faced with a difficult person. Someone could be going through a difficult time and you may never know about it. If you have had a long relationship with that person, you could say something like this, “you don’t seem yourself lately, is everything okay?” Even then, realize that they may not open up to you.

When to Ignore Difficult People

While salvaging your relationship with a difficult person is usually the best option, there may be times when it’s best to ignore a difficult person.

Sometimes you can ignore the difficult behavior and still work with the individual. This is particularly true if the behavior is mainly irritating, but not serious. For example, the client who asks for daily status reports may be annoying, but there’s probably no reason why you shouldn’t comply with their request and continue working with them.

At other times, particularly when the difficult person is not a client, you may be able to ignore them. This happened to me several months ago. For a while there was a commentator on my personal blog who seemed to determined to disagree with everything that I said. At first, I responded to their every comment, but finally I realized that there was no real reason for me to reply. The person wasn’t really interested in a discussion. Eventually that person got bored and went away.

What to Do as a Last Resort

The last resort that a freelancer has for dealing with a difficult person is to cut yourself off from them entirely. I call this the last resort because it’s usually pretty difficult to undo. Cutting yourself off usually means ending whatever relationship you have with that difficult person.

It’s best not to take this step unless you are sure about it. Never make this decision in a hurry. A few situations that may require you to sever a relationship include:

  • A seriously late or missing payment
  • Harassment or threats (these may also require legal action)
  • A request to do something illegal or unethical
  • Frequent and consistent lies

Tell Us How You Deal with Difficult People

We’ve shared some tips for dealing with difficult people. Now it’s your turn.

Have you faced difficult people during the course of your freelancing career? How have you dealt with them?

Share your answers in the comments.

Image by photomishdan