How to Deal With A Difficult Client

Be a better human.
Every encounter counts.

A few weeks ago, I had an incident with a client that made me question my choice in clients.

Was there a red flag I missed?

Did I do something horribly wrong?


The answer to all of those questions was NO.

But those questions nevertheless crossed my mind.

I’ve worked with many-a-challenging client in my years as a service provider. My guess is, if you’re reading this, you have too. Maybe too many to count. Or just enough to make you consider quitting the freelance/entrepreneur life and joining the circus. Let’s be honest… The Greatest Showman made you consider that even harder. Maybeeeee you’re even in the middle of an icky, sticky situation with a certain difficult someone right now.

If so, I feel you. And, I’m here to help. Grab your sage, your CBD oil, your bottle of wine and pull up a chair because we’re gonna work through this…

Here’s the first thing you need to remember.

HUMANS ARE FUCKING WEIRD. I mean, we are W E I R D. I think the weirdest thing about being a human is that what’s normal to you is not normal to everyone. You might think that canceling or rescheduling the day before a call is totally cool, while someone else might think that’s rude and disrespectful or a nuisance or a pain-in-the-ass. And whether or not they think that might also depend on the day of the week, the week of the month, or where the fucking moon resides in the sky and how full it is. Like, actually. Humans are nuts.

We’re also weird because we think we’re normal and everyone else is weird. That’s the weirdest thing of all! But the second weirdest thing about humans is the way in which we’re all the same.

We are emotional, we are judgmental, and most notably, we are liars.

If you disagree with me, ask yourself… are you really honest ALL the time? C’mon… are you?

Or are you someone who says “everything’s fine” when you really want to run into a corner crying and kick a mean person in the shin? Do you defend yourself tooth and nail because you just really really really reallyyyy want to be right all the time? Do you shrink back in the face of confrontation because you’re scared to voice how you really feel? Do you ever let your brain override your feelings and convince you things are fine when they’re not fine?

I bet you do. Even if only sometimes. And babe, that’s lying.

Look, I’m not saying that you should go cry in a corner and kick your difficult client in the shin because it would be more honest. Cry into a pillow, it’s way more absorbent. But kicking is violent so maybe go to the gym instead?

All I am saying is HUMANS ARE WEIRD. (And that includes YOU.)

So… how do we deal with them?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. In addition to providing creative services and teaching (to occasionally difficult clients ;)), I’ve also coached and mentored multiple other creative service providers on their businesses. And the thing that always comes up again, and again, and again, like a broken record…

Is how to deal with awkward or icky situations with clients.

And the biggest reason this comes up again and again and again and again…

Is because humans are weird. We are messy.

The biggest reason we’re messy is because we are story-spinners.

We love to generate meaning out of the tiniest of things…

So unhappy and difficult clients can spin us into irrational thought patterns like…

That means… I AM UNLOVABLE.

These situations can trigger our subconscious survival fears to spin off like a dreidel on the 1st night of Hanukah and make us question things like our worth, our sanity, and our livelihood.

So when you find yourself in an icky situation with a client, you might feel nauseated, sick, or even unable to sleep. You might literally fear for your life, worrying you’ll end up eating ramen on a street corner for the rest of your life (and no, I don’t mean fancy, gluten-free kind of ramen either. I mean fucking cup o’noodle.). You might even wonder if your friends will disown you. “They’re only friends with me because I’m cool, and cool people don’t disappoint clients or do shitty work.”

I know where your brain is going, baby. So let’s just start by pulling that big, fat emergency brake we call “slow the shitty thought train down.” I get it, you’re scared.

Guess what? We all are.

But the good news is that disappointing a client never killed anyone. (Unless the client was, like, Basic Instinct level crazy in which case, all bets are off.)

Okay, but back to the point of this article. Yes, it sucks to disappoint people. I know it does. It hurts and it’s scary and sometimes it does make you consider working at a zoo because animals are easier to deal with than people at times. And sometimes you might even think to yourself “hey, I’d rather clean up actual poop than the terrifying and shitty emotional poop that people throw at me sometimes.” I get it.

But you can deal with difficult clients. Yes, YOU. YOU CAN.

Here is how to deal with a difficult client without burning bridges, your dignity, or your business down.

  1. Recognize that it’s not about you. As I said earlier, it’s natural for you to get upset or ego stung. And look, most people want everyone to like them. It’s a survival instinct. It feels safe to be in good standing with people, to feel like you’re part of their community, on their side, on their team. It can feel threatening when someone doesn’t like you or your work. It can make your insides freak out, screaming “LOVE ME!!!” [GIF] But guess what? It’s not your client’s job to love you. It’s their job to communicate with you. To pay you on time. To respect your boundaries. It’s your job to love you. So let’s start by dosing you up with some good, well-deserved love with this reminder: if your client is being difficult, mean, pushing your boundaries, being overly blame-y, bullying, or treating you with disrespect: it is not about you. It’s bad behavior and it’s on THEM. And it’s not because you suck or you’re a bad person. It’s their problem, not yours. Your problem is that you’re tolerating it.
  1. Okay, so sometimes it IS about you. Yup. This is a relationship and all relationships have two sides. That means if your client resides on the South side of the street, you reside on the North side. So, if your client isn’t happy with your work, it’s your job to find out what happened on the North side of the street to cause that. But instead of worrying that it means you suck and you’ll never work in this town again, try getting curious. Try getting interested instead of getting defensive. Remember: all work is a co-creative process. Technically speaking, all everything is a co-creative process. That means that the reality you’re living in? It’s partly your creation too. So you have to get honest and clear about how you contributed to that situation. Did you do shitty work? Did you mess something up? Did you make a stupid mistake? A bad judgment call? Own it. You can’t improve a situation by avoiding responsibility for your piece of the pie. So get clear on what part of this challenging situation is your responsibility. If you were wrong, admit it. This doesn’t mean you should let someone bully you into thinking you did something wrong when you didn’t. It means take responsibility for what’s yours. You and your difficult client? You arrived here together. And your client’s happiness? That’s actually their responsibility, not yours.
  1. Recognize what they might be feeling. Usually when things get icky, it’s because there’s been a breach of trust. Something you did (or didn’t do) made your client feel like they can’t trust you. Again, parts of this are yours and parts are theirs. But this is what they’re feeling. Like they can’t trust you. Like you betrayed them. I’m not saying it’s rational, I’m saying it’s what they’re feeling. Usually when clients are difficult with me it’s because they’re freaking out about something totally unrelated but it leaks into our work together. It might be that they’re scared to put the project we’re creating into the world. It might be that they’re stressed about something at home or with one of their clients. It might be that they’re extremely busy and feeling overwhelmed and impatient. 9 times out of 10, it’s not even related to anything I directly did or did not do. Most of the time, they are just scared or depleted or angry at themselves about something else. Why? Because they’re weird humans just like you and me. Maybe their client was mean to them and it made them go through that oddly familiar negative thought pattern. Or maybe they just had a shitty week. Remember that their feelings are not your responsibility, and approach the situation with compassion. Treat them like a scared little boy or girl. Because most likely, that’s how they’re feeling when they’re being difficult.
  1. Understand your own shit too. Yeah, so… why are you scared of letting this client down? Are you scared of letting all people down? Why? Are you scared one bad client is going to tank your business? Because it won’t. It can help to remember that everyone is scared. Everyone is dealing with difficult people at times. And everyone has a client/boss/team member/contractor/parent/partner/child who’s going to be an emotional weirdo at times and potentially pass the weirdness down. Remember, even when you feel alone, we’re all in this weird human thing together. You’re gonna be OK. But if you’re going to approach your difficult client, being able to “deal” means handling your own unrelated shit. For example, if you find yourself taking responsibility for your client’s happiness or sense of well-being because you had a dynamic of taking responsibility for one of your parents’ or siblings’ feelings or well-being… it’s probably time to talk that shit out with a therapist and heal it.
  1. Reevaluate your fucking boundaries. This is a tough one. But… are you the problem? Are you pissed and resentful because you over delivered or burnt yourself out for this client? Is this client actually difficult, or is the real problem the fact that you have no fucking boundaries, haven’t charged enough, and have a hard time asking for what you need? Examine what might make you approach this situation with an emotional charge too.
  1. Don’t assume the worst. For real. Don’t assume they hate you. Don’t assume they’re going to fire you. Don’t assume the problem can’t be fixed. Instead, have a hard conversation. If you want to grow as a human being, freelancer, and entrepreneur you’re going to have to learn to receive feedback about yourself and your work without deciding the other person is wrong (because of that whole “need to be right” thing). If you are unwilling to be wrong, then you are unwilling to have an open, challenging “conscious” conversation and listen to why your client is unhappy or being “difficult” with you. But the only way to find out the truth is to ask hard questions. So, before you get defensive and decide you’re right and they’re wrong — find out what’s going on. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask for more detailed feedback on how you can improve your work. Listen. For all you know, no one has asked them a question like that in a long time and they just need to be heard. Watch how simply asking someone how they feel, being kind, and listening can shift the energy of the conversation.
  1. Decide if you even like them. Yeah, I know. All this talk about “OMG what if they don’t like me? Or badmouth me? Or fire me?” and now I’m asking you if you even like them. Funny how this all comes full circle, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: if you feel it, they probably do too. There’s always a chance this working relationship is just not a fit. And you don’t have to force it. So let’s look at you for a moment again and ask… “Do you even like working with this client?” If you’re not sure, a good way to tell is whether or not your body feels tense all over when you think about them. Are you excited about their projects? Or does it drain your life to think about working on anything for them? If that tension doesn’t go away after having an honest conversation and asking for what you need to do a good job for them, it’s probably a sign you need to fire the client. And of course, if they can’t have a kind, honest conversation with you when you ask for one, it’s a definite sign you need to fire the client. Your clients take up a lot of your time and energy so it’s imperative that you work only with people you absolutely love.
  1. If it’s time, fire the client. In case you’re like “but omg HOW?!” I’m going to walk you step-by-step through the process. First, decide how you want to end the relationship. Do you still owe them work? Do you want to finish that work? If so, when will the engagement term end? If not, is there any advance of money that needs to be returned? Remember, if you’re holding back from firing someone over some amount of money — you need to really let that shit go. Sometimes it’s better to eat ramen at your desk for the right client than it is to let the wrong client make you sick and miserable. That shit causes all kinds of disease and strain. There is no shame in simply saying “this isn’t for me” and drawing a line where you need to draw a line.
  1. Wondering what to say? These can be awkward conversations to have and awkward emails to send, so I created a few free “goodbye” scripts that you can download and edit to make this a bit easier. Click here if you want to download them!
  1. Do something nice for yourself. Seriously. Dealing with difficult clients can be an immense strain on your energy. You could get a massage, eat some ice cream, go for a stroll, or take a shower and wash those negative vibes away. Think about something nice you could do for yourself that would help you release all of the icky charge around having a challenging confrontation, and go do it. Taking care of you helps you handle everything better. It helps you be a better human. The more love and compassion and care you give yourself, the more you have to give your clients – even the difficult ones. And sometimes that turns a difficult client into your favorite client. 🙂

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