Assertiveness is always tricky when you work in a client focused industry. You’re constantly treading a fine line between keeping the client happy and delivering on their objectives, while also standing your ground in terms of your own opinions and expertise. And it can be doubly difficult for freelancers, as you’re reliant on your clients for your pay cheque at the end of the month – and that can mean you end up backing down more than you’d like.
But learning to be assertive is essential if you’re going to maintain a manageable work-life balance and do your job to the best of your ability, not to mention gain and retain the respect of your clients. Things like refusing projects which you don’t have time for, hashing out contract terms and budgets, and then explaining what is and isn’t possible within the scope of work, all need a degree of assertiveness. And having the ability to stand your ground will save you a whole lot of hassle in the long-run.
If you’re not the assertive type, don’t worry. Like anything, it takes practice and there are a few techniques you can try which don’t require you to rule the room. Here are our top tips for calm, controlled freelancer assertiveness:
- Demonstrate that you’re listening. Listening is often associated with meekness when, in fact, listening is one of the most powerfully assertive things you can do. Listening demonstrates that you are calm, in control of your emotions, and treating the situation with rational consideration. What’s more, it gives you a lot of power when it comes to making your response. If you have listened properly, you’ll be armed with knowledge about your client’s perspective and able to formulate an informed and reasonable answer, addressing their specific points within your response.
- Know your limits. The uncertainty and instability of freelancing can make it hard to say ‘no’ to new projects, even when they’re not ideal. But taking on work that you don’t have time for, or don’t enjoy, only means you end up resenting it, feeling stressed out, and taking your career in the wrong direction. The solution, of course, is to respect your limits, and that means being clear on what they are in the first place. For example, if you only want to work on strategic projects, or within a certain industry, or certain days of the week, be clear about that and stick to it. Make a physical list of your limits and boundaries, so you have a solid foundation to base your decisions on, and feel much more confident saying ‘no’ in the future.
- Don’t equate ‘No’ with negativity. Many of us feel bad about refusing things. We’re conditioned to associate ‘no’ with negative feelings, and we worry that we’ll get on the wrong side of people. But in fact, the opposite is true. If you’re overly compliant then you may seem too available, which indicates that you’re not very busy, or not good enough at your job to keep the work flowing. So, if you’re inundated (or just plain don’t like a brief), don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s not a negative thing, it’s a natural part of running a business, and your clients will understand that.
- Be gracious. Having said that, some ways of saying ‘no’ are better than others. A gracious (if firm) refusal will ensure that the door is left open for future work. Be calm and polite in the language you use and try framing your refusal within positivity. Thank them for thinking of you and wish them all the best with the project. It can also be good to offer an alternative if possible, so, if you’re busy now, when will you next have availability? Or, do you know another freelancer that you can recommend?
- Manage expectations. Unrealistic expectations are the bane of freelancers everywhere, where clients have skewed ideas of the results that their project or campaign is likely to generate. . This is one situation when assertiveness is vital to ensure you don’t make a rod for your own back or end up with a disappointed client when their expectations aren’t met. To make managing expectations easier, address the issue from the outset, t, ensuring you have a frank discussion about both the opportunities and risks of the project, as well as the factors that are outside your control. This is also a good moment to broach how your client can help to give you the best chance possible to achieve the results you want, by ensuring quick response times, and being forthcoming with the information you need to deliver.
- Agree in writing. Following on from this, always formalise what you have agreed in writing, including objectives, KPIs, time spent on account management and reporting, or number of rounds of revisions if you’re a copywriter or designer. This asserts your own conditions, again helps to manage expectations and gives you something to refer back to should things go awry. It’s not uncommon for projects to change as they evolve, or for clients to ask for additional work without realising it isn’t in the original scope. Getting agreed Ts and Cs down in writing gives you the confidence and back-up to flag this with the client and let them know there will be an additional charge.
Being more assertive can be uncomfortable at first but, if done right, it will boost your professionalism and win you more respect that would otherwise be the case. And that can only be a good thing for your career.