Great article and have met a few people who fit into most of these categories! It would be great if people got rid of the idea that the use of the word ‘free’ in freelance is not literal and only a title!
A Freelancer’s Guide to Dealing with Difficult People
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
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January 6th, 2010 at 8:46 am
January 6th, 2010 at 8:54 am
I really felt a great Problems Dealing with Difficult People… But after reading this post, i got the technique of managing the real person.
I found interesting on the three reasons why a freelancer might perceive someone as being difficult. Awesome Content Written!
January 6th, 2010 at 9:12 am
Yeah, not burning any bridges is smart advice. And I noticed that people who like to argue with you on almost anything tend to be bad customers, usually never satisfied with your work, serial refunders, and naysayers.
I think we could easily spot these type of characters right from their first email. So read it carefully, and due diligence…
January 6th, 2010 at 9:37 am
I found your website in smashmagazine and i´m loving it…
I´m Portuguese and I have a site that makes a lot of contact with the visitor…It´s a bank financial site… And sometimes I found people so angry with their banks that they talk as if I am the Banker…
It’s crazy… But as a professional in Bank Financial I have a lot of workshops about negociation and conflit management… That I deal well with them and I understand everything that they feel and use that for business,…Of course with ethics…
Sorry about my English…
January 6th, 2010 at 10:05 am
Once again I would like to compliment you on having an absolutely fantastic blog.
The quality of the information provided really is second to none and I just want to let you know I have tremendously enjoyed this particular post.
January 6th, 2010 at 10:16 am
Thanks for another helpful post, Laura! I especially like having the exact “script” for specific situations.
While I still encounter Difficult People as a freelancer, they are much fewer than when I was in an office job.
When I’m having difficulties with a client, I never assume that my client is being difficult. The first thing I do is to stop and review our previous communication (I use email mostly) to see where I may have misunderstood. And then I ask questions to clarify.
It always helps to email the client with a list of major agreements after a telephone call, or to say something like, “I understand you want …”
However, when I sense that the client is being dishonest or just plain difficult, then I end the relationship – in a gracious and civil way, of course.
January 6th, 2010 at 10:20 am
Difficult people are encountered in all areas of life, and at work or freelancing we have to develop methods of working through difficult situations. I think a pushy client can sometimes actually be helpful to the design process as sometimes us designers need someone who is on our case.
January 6th, 2010 at 10:21 am
I’m glad you’re enjoying the post.
Lexi, Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t exactly view these as exact scripts for situtations, but rather as guides for what to say. I think the important thing is to step outside of your problems and try to put yourself in their shoes. Then you may be able to figure out what is really going on (and why they seem difficult).
January 6th, 2010 at 10:25 am
Unfortunately I had some difficult clients, even the last resort ones. My new year resolution is to screen my clients better to avoid situations like these again. Great article.
January 6th, 2010 at 12:37 pm
I have been fortunate enough to not have too many situations arise that could not be fixed with some tactful communication.
However, there was one situation where the client was under the impression that developing copy for their site was simply a matter of copying and pasting the text from their old site over to the new site I was developing for them.
The old copy was poorly written, and not presented in a user-friendly fashion at all! I had to pull off a careful response to get around that situation as well.
All ended well, though, so it was not a complete disaster of ‘communication breakdown’.
January 6th, 2010 at 1:06 pm
I especially agree with Joanna about screening clients well.
Not every client is a good match for your talents, and it’s important to make sure that you are on the same page (or can get there).
January 6th, 2010 at 1:28 pm
Thanks for the great article! It’s definitely tough as a designer to deal with difficult people because you don’t feel like you should need to. Every client that comes in always has a different attitude, and being a freelancer you need to learn how to mould to these different personas and truly be a “chameleon”.
Thanks for the tips!!
January 6th, 2010 at 4:11 pm
Great Post. I’ve been blessed where I have not had to deal with difficult clients. I’m in a position where i can pick and choose who I want to work with. If they do get on my nerves, I just pass them on to a coworker!
January 6th, 2010 at 5:02 pm
I’ve not had many difficult clients, but I have had a few. Some thought they were entitled to unlimited revisions, others wouldn’t let me work and wanted absolute control. It’s best to spot the troublemakers early on and to pass on the work.
January 6th, 2010 at 6:05 pm
Thanks everyone, for your feedback.
Revisions are a thorny issue. You want to do it right, but you can’t afford for the client to be constantly changing their mind. I think it’s best to negotiate a revision policy up front, if you can.
January 6th, 2010 at 6:20 pm
Great read here. I also think sometimes people’s expectations of others blur when they feel close to someone they do business with. Its a good idea to hint and preserve a good level of professionalism even when talking about personal details with client.
January 6th, 2010 at 6:55 pm
I agree, great article.
Though I’m not a full time freelancer I still encounter the occasional difficult client more often than I’d like to admit. I’m actually in the process of dealing with one right now (its taken close to a year to finish a logo design and its come down to them drawing it out and having me “clean it up”), so reading this article has really helped. Thanks again.
January 6th, 2010 at 9:35 pm
I like this post very very much. Good advice as I really have to deal with a lot of clients from different countries, personalities and religious beliefs.
January 7th, 2010 at 12:42 am
Hi Laura, You’ve echoed the exact way that I deal with difficult people in business and beyond. It also helps to remember that there will always be difficult people in life so it’s best to learn how to deal with them and try not to get too stressed out over the conflicts.
January 7th, 2010 at 1:54 am
I was just about to actually write on a similar topic on my own blog, primarily because I just dealt with a particular difficult person. This is a great list of tips and explanations concerning working with difficult people. Wish they didn’t exist at all, but at least we have things like this to refer to when we have to deal with someone.
January 7th, 2010 at 5:14 am
Dealing with difficult people is always a challenge, especially in the working environment. As a freelancer it’s clear that these challenges are multiplied, with the possibility of your income being seriously affected by the problems.
Knowing how to deal with these challenges effectively is the key to success as a freelancer and ensuring your pay packet. This is a very useful article and can help you get through multiple issues that may arise. Personally I believe a lot of time issues arise from the lack of understanding between clients and customer, whether these are the project brief or technical issues.
Clearly outlining what the project is, and what your stages of development for the client will be is the key to a successful relationship and smooth project. If the client knows what you are doing and how much difficulty this involves can clear up any grey areas. Thanks for another useful article; it’s clear that everything comes down to communication.
January 7th, 2010 at 1:53 pm
Love the post, thanks for the advice.
January 7th, 2010 at 3:25 pm
My first client was a complete nightmare; I wish I had this guide then! Great guide :)
January 7th, 2010 at 6:27 pm
Nice tips, glad to have found this early in my freelancing career.
I think a perfect contract will avoid most of the problems.
Every freelancer should have a contract template.
January 8th, 2010 at 7:53 pm
life is full of challenging everyday, and it is people dealing business in genral. from what my little experience. i would say find out what make this one difficult to deal with ? what are they looking for from the deal ? if i can make it ? do i have to deal with or i can pass it ? if u have to deal with,,,,
in genral, i would say listening is the first step to almost eveyone you are dealing with in life, i try my best to understand the way they are thinking. and see if i can find a commonality with them or any sympathy or help i can do.
hope it helps.
January 11th, 2010 at 7:16 am
ver nice article! I hope for a every freelancer that they don`t come in the situation with missing payment and things like this. It`s horror to lose friends and clients on a way like this …
January 11th, 2010 at 10:04 am
These are the most common things you have discussed. But you have promoted them in an eloquent way. We occasionally forget all these things and unnecessarily confront with these types of unwanted guests. Sometimes various productive thoughts are arisen but most of them are drained out due to lack of planning and our wrong engagement. That’s mean we fail to hatch them properly. We need the sense, vision and correct situation.
January 13th, 2010 at 6:41 am
wow! freelance writer guide… nice article. this will help freelance writers in dealing with difficult people.
Thanks for this post.
April 14th, 2010 at 8:21 am
Thanks for another useful article, I’ve had some pretty bad clients in the past, I now see them as learning curves.
August 3rd, 2010 at 11:59 am
What I have noticed in every year somehow I need to deal with at least one irritating client. I have been working with a client for last 1 month and seems I must categorize him in this bored and irritating list who are using “Frequent and consistent lies”. If he says something is not as per his requirements, then I tried to give several options, say, he need an image file with high quality, and after showing it to him he is saying its not as he wanted to see, then I sent him 5-6 versions and asked politely which one seems good to him, but he did not reply instead pointing out another issues.
I would prefer to avoid even before starting the work.
October 6th, 2011 at 7:45 am
Thanks for sharing Laura, a very useful take on how to deal with troublesome clients.
December 21st, 2011 at 3:08 pm
You’ve left off one of the major reasons people who hire you can be difficult: they are intentionally trying to take advantage of you. This is far more common than most realize.
Pretending not to understand what they agreed to in order to get more free work is a common tactic as is complaining about whatever they can think of in order to get you to offer more work without pay to make them happy.
As soon as you realize that a client’s intentions are to take advantage the faster you fire them the better.
I highly recommend getting at least 50% paid in advance and in my case I have a 100% cash in advance policy. I have never had a quality client complain about that and every time I ever made an exception I lived to regret it. The people who complain are the ones that have no intention of paying.
One tip-off that you’ve run into one of these clients is that they ask you to make new work a priority over the previously agreed to work, want you to apply what they already paid to that priority work, and then try to refuse to send more money for the previously paid work because “they already paid for it”.
Any client that regularly has “emergencies” they want you to fix that cause you issues with being able to have a balanced life and meeting your commitments to other clients needs to be fired because they will consistently turn your life upside down and cause you to miss other deadlines.
As the sign a specialist I worked with at IBM had hanging over his desk said: “Lack of planning on your part does NOT constitute an emergency on mine”.
Yes, we should help all those we can – but NO we should not allow ANYONE to take advantage of us. The clearer you can make what you have agreed to do and exactly when you expect to be paid the less issues you will run into – and the easier it will be to recognize people who would use you unfairly. With experience they will become quite obvious to you.
February 24th, 2012 at 5:01 am
The key thing about being a successful freelancer is to learn from your mistakes. Try and figure out where things went sour with a client and prevent it from happening in the future.
October 19th, 2012 at 5:09 pm
Thanks for sharing Laura. The points are very good. I will get our team to read this
March 2nd, 2013 at 8:46 am
All is Well……………
May 6th, 2013 at 12:56 am
Yes I agree you should always or at
least try to salvage the relationship specially when the difficult person is your client.
Having a successful working relationship with the most difficult client is an achievement that will set you apart from the crowd.
Thanks for the tips Laura.
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