How to Say No as a Freelancer

Few words in the English language are as terrifying as ‘no’.

Most freelancers are people pleasers.

We like to help people and we love to do a good job. We’re passionate about what we do, which means we want to do more of it.

This is all great – it helps you to wow your clients, make an impact and produce amazing work on a consistent basis.

The problem comes when we don’t know how (or when) we should deploy that little word ‘no’.


Why saying no is so hard to do

If you love to please, then ‘no’ can be the hardest word you ever have to say.

You imagine it will bring up conflict, problems and leave the other person disappointed in you.

The truth is, as a freelancer, we all need to learn to say no sometimes. Nobody else is acting as a gatekeeper or looking out for your time, so you need to know when to put your foot down.

The alternative is allowing other people to dictate your time and energy.

There’s nothing worse than having a full day planned out and then you get an email with that little red exclamation mark.

Somebody else’s urgent problem has just become your urgent problem.

But only if you let it.

How to get comfortable saying ‘no’ as a freelancer

As you get more confident and comfortable as a freelancer, you will learn to become more comfortable saying ‘no’ naturally.

This will give you the control to grow your business, and establish rules and boundaries that will prevent people from taking your time from you and taking advantage of your good nature.

But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t easy. And I’m not saying you have to say no all of the time. Sometimes it’s worth putting yourself under some strain if it really helps a client out. If you can help them avoid disaster by riding in to save the day, that can make an amazing impression on someone.

This kind of action can be uncomfortable at the moment, but it can really help to cement your client relationships. Going that extra mile can really help you to stand out and impress people.

And sometimes it is just genuinely nice to help out.

But, it becomes a problem when it becomes the norm.

3 ways to say ‘no’ as a freelancer

The issue is once you’ve said ‘yes’ when you should have said ‘no’ a few times, this becomes the new normal.

It’s like training a dog.

If you allow the client to see that there are no issues with coming to you last minute and making their problem your problem, then you will be conditioning them to think that this is fine and this is how things work.

If you lay down boundaries, or at least make it clear that this is a one-off, then you can avoid allowing these negative habits to become ingrained.

So here are some tactics that will help you say no as a freelancer – or at least turn the situation into one that doesn’t make you angry or resentful.

1. Say yes, but make it clear it’s a one off

As mentioned there are often benefits to saying yes if you value the relationship and want to help out.

In these situations, you can say yes, but make it clear that you’re going out of your way to help out. Don’t guilt-trip the other party or lay it on too thick, but make sure that you are communicating that you are doing something you wouldn’t normally do.

You can also subtly make it clear that it’s not something you’ll be able to do again.

Something like “I’m really short on time, but I really want to help so I’m going to juggle a few things around to squeeze this in for you” makes it clear that you’re doing the other party a big favour, without making them feel too bad for it.

It also gently implies that this won’t be a repeating pattern.

2. Say yes with conditions

This can be a great one to help your client decide whether the job is actually so urgent.

Say you will help but charge an urgent fee that makes you happy to take on the extra discomfort. You shouldn’t feel guilty about this, as you can even offer to do the job later without the fee if the client prefers.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t suffer because of your clients’ lack of planning.

Often this leads to the client reconsidering how urgent the job is.

3. Say no without actually saying no.

Sometimes you do just have to be brave and say ‘no’.

I really like this quote from Greg McKeown in his great book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

Whether it’s “I am flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth” or “I would very much like to but I’m overcommitted,” there are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word ‘no’.

Greg McKeown

Let’s face it, ‘no’ is a blunt word.

There’s no reason you actually have to use the word ‘no’, which can come off as unhelpful and stubborn if not used with care.

These responses show that you’re considering the situation and are trying to help. You’re also giving a reason for saying ‘no’, which psychologists suggest helps people accept your decision much more happily.

As you grow in your freelance career, you’ll realise that managing your own time and your boundaries is crucial if you want to have any control over how you work and how your career develops. If you let other people control your schedule, you’ll never be able to develop your skills, work on your business and enjoy the many benefits of going freelance.

We talk a lot about growing your confidence in my course Freelance Bootcamp, where you’ll find much more information to help with saying no, managing clients and expectations.

In the meantime, start small. Experiment with gently setting your boundaries and build up from there.

Saying no can be one of the most freeing things you do – but use that powerful little word wisely.

→ Sign up for Freelance Bootcamp and build a thriving, sustainable freelance business doing the work you love!

This is a 4-week, intense course where we take a deep dive into setting up a successful, long-term freelance business.

→ Get more information about Bootcamp here, and feel free to contact us with any questions you might have about it!

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