In the feast-or-famine world of freelancing, it can often feel like you have to accept every job that comes your way. Maybe you’re worried about missing opportunities for growth. Or honestly, you just need the money.
But signing onto a job before you know who you’ll be working with comes with some inherent risks. You may wind up with a client who doesn’t match your style, expects you to work for pennies, or just has a grating personality. Whether your differences with a new client are more logistical or ideological, it’s easy to grow to resent them as time goes on, which will ultimately have a negative impact on the quality of your work.
“The stress of navigating a difficult client may show through in your work by perhaps cutting corners to get it done with, or feeling less invested so unconsciously putting less time and effort into the project,” says Denver psychotherapist and speaker Brittany Bouffard, LCSW. But, she adds, it isn’t just your craft that could suffer as a result: “Even if your work is the same quality, there likely will be interpersonal stress impacting you.”
Maybe you get stuck in a bad mood for the rest of the day after dealing with this client, or perhaps you lose motivation to network because this client is so draining. You might not notice it at the time, but these moments gradually accumulate and fuel how stressed you feel overall.
Luckily, another reality of being self-employed is that you don’t have to put up with a frustrating client forever. Here’s how to deal—and when to know when it’s time to cut ties for good.
Don’t fight fire with fire.
“Try to not match their harsh or condescending or abrupt tone,” Bouffard says. “Stick with the tone and energy you want, as much as is possible.” When someone has really gotten under your skin, this is easier said than done, but stooping to their level will never help the situation. Before getting on a call or emailing a bothersome client, don’t focus on the nasty or confusing things they might say (and how badly you want to fire back at them). Instead, Bouffard says to “picture the zen, calm, assertive manner you’d like to present yourself, where you don’t give in to defensiveness or worry.” This takes practice, but in the long run, you’re better off demonstrating how you’d like to be spoken to by speaking to your clients in that same way.
Cut them down to size (in your head).
When you’re working with a difficult client, corresponding and collaborating can be frustrating, if not downright scary. Bouffard offers a quick (and funny) visualization exercise to squash any feelings of intimidation ahead of your next meeting: “Picture the client smaller in your mind, shrink their size or voice in your imagination, helping you somatically regain some semblance of power balance. You can imagine them three inches tall, silenced, and in clown pajamas.” If you can picture your client in a silly light, you may find it easier to speak with them, ask them questions, and even negotiate with them when the time comes.
Vent — out loud or on paper.
Harboring resentment toward a client can easily lead you to bottle up your feelings, allowing them to simmer below the surface until, inevitably, you blow up at the worst possible time. It’s for this reason that Bouffard emphasizes the importance of journaling, specifically about the client who’s getting to you. “Type or write out your thoughts about them without stopping, no editing, letting the arc of emotions rise and naturally release,” she says. You can even write a fake letter to them in which you call out their toxicity. “These methods can help release the emotion in job-safe ways.”
Bouffard also notes that your friends and family can be a wonderful support system — it’s likely they’ve dealt with their share of annoying bosses or awful managers as well, so it’s even more likely that they have some useful advice to share. She recommends venting to loved ones when you’re prepared not only to talk about how this client is making you feel but to listen to their stories as well. If all you want to do is complain, start with your journal.
Gracefully end the relationship, if your gut says you should.
“Your boundaries are important in every aspect of your life work,” Bouffard says. “You are allowed to say no to an anxiety-provoking, harmful, abusive relationship of any form in your life, even if you’re worried it might hurt your bottom line.” Your comfort needs to be a top priority — keep that in mind when an unpleasant client offers you more work or a contract renewal. Honor your needs and tell them you can’t take on more work from them at the moment. “Your wellbeing and sanity are more important than losing an ill-fitting client,” Bouffard says.
You might not be totally sure where your boundaries are with a certain client, in which case you should take Bouffard’s advice: ”Even if the client isn’t emotionally hurtful, but maybe has incomprehensible demands or a terrible personality, consider how your body would feel if you picture letting them go as a client.” If just the thought of letting that client go sends a rush of relief through your body, that’s a sign that the relationship needs to end. (Related: 3 Signs You Should Fire Your Terrible Client (And How to Do It))
Watch out for similar behavior in the future.
The upside of dealing with a client you grew to resent is that you can go forward with a much clearer idea of who you do and don’t want to work with next. Bouffard recommends preparing a few open-ended questions about their preferences ahead of interviews with potential clients. “Ask to describe a previous creative collaboration that went well for them. If there isn’t one — that’s important!” she says. And don’t be afraid to outline your own needs and preferences in the same conversation. If you expect prompt and adequate pay, constructive notes, and reasonable deadlines, tell that potential client directly. “Be firm and clear in your ways. A bad fit might just opt themselves out for you,” Bouffard says. If you know someone who might be a better match for their personality and working style, you can offer to connect them. This extra step can make your refusal a little more graceful, but it’s by no means a requirement.
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