There are many reasons to say ‘no’ to a project as a freelancer. You might not have time to complete it on schedule. The money might not be right. It doesn’t fall into your wheelhouse. You simply don’t want to do it. Regardless of the actual reason, what happens when you say ‘no’ to someone? Does it sever the connection? Will they offer you work down the road?

These questions trip me up any time I even think of turning down a project. It’s hard. You worry. I’ve only really said no one time, and it wasn’t even a hard ‘no!’ It was more like a brief explanation as to why I don’t have time to do A when I’m already working on B, and thank you so much for giving me work B to do.

When your income comes from freelance, it’s scary to even think of losing one contact, even if you’re not thrilled to work with a particular client, but sometimes you just have to say it.

Always saying ‘yes’

I think I got into the bad habit of always saying ‘yes’ when I first started working after college. I was in an entry-level job where everyone else was above me. While most people at the company created a collaborative environment, I always wanted to be seen as a stellar employee. I wanted the reputation of going the extra mile, of someone who really loved their job. I did love my job, most of the time, so it wasn’t much of an imposition to say ‘yes’ a few more times than I should have. There were a few late nights, but always on projects that I really enjoyed.

The reward for my ‘yes’ attitude was more responsibility, more interaction with those at a higher level. Promotions followed, and in my 15 years at that company, I do believe I became a valuable addition to any group that had me.

Then, I went freelance. I got to make up my own rules, but I still couldn’t say ‘no.’ I wanted the work and the connections. I wanted to be that reliable person clients turned to when they really needed something fast. For the most part I still am, however this is where I began to get in trouble. While my work never outwardly suffered, I began to lose the thing I had most wanted as a freelancer — time.

I was working every free second to keep up with incoming projects. The time I spent with my kids left me worried about how late I’d have to stay up finishing projects after they went to bed. It wasn’t creating that healthy work-life balance I had wanted to get in going freelance.

I decided to try a few alternatives to saying ‘no.’ I lengthened those deadlines I could for a little more time. I also politely declined any additional referrals from those amazing clients who kept sending people my way. So far, it’s working, but I think I would have better cared for myself if I’d had the right tools to simply say, ‘no’ from the beginning.

The art of the ‘no’

Learning how to say ‘no’ in a professional environment means being respectful and firm. You don’t want to leave an opening for them to “convince” you to take on something you’re trying to avoid. It can also blur boundaries making certain clients repeat offenders regardless of what you’re telling them.

The trick is speaking with honesty without making yourself look bad. The best way to do this is through focusing on what you already know:

1. Your skillset
Even if you consider yourself a jack-of-all-trades, you still have a skillset where you’re at your best. Myself, I’m a content creator with a marketing background, which means projects can fit into my wheelhouse that go beyond simply writing. I can consult on marketing strategies, advise on what types of content to use where, and more. I often run into issues when getting asked to tackle a writing/marketing project with some graphical element. I do have rudimentary graphics experience, but by specifying that graphics aren’t within my skillset, I’m able to deflect that aspect of a project, and maybe forgo the project all together. I handle skillset issues by having a referral in my back pocket who can fill the gap for me. Oh, you need help with LinkedIn? I’m not entirely caught up on all its features, but here’s the name of an expert. Or Let me introduce you over email to my colleague who specializes in graphics. She can help you complete this project.

2. Your notes
When talking to a client, take copious notes. Write down anything related to the project you’ve been asked to work on, and give a special designation to action items as they come up. If too many extras get added after that initial call/email, or the parameters of the project change, you can always go back and visit your original information. Cite it and explain this is what you’ve prepared for, adding that more time/activity will change the deadline, cost, or require we bring in some additional help. According to my notes, this project was for two pieces of content, 1,000 words each, to add a third piece, I’ll need an extra week and the cost will go up to $XXX.

3. Your schedule
There’s no shame in refusing a last-minute project because it’s simply impossible to get it done. I feel like a hypocrite writing this, since I always feel guilty when in this scenario, but your schedule only has so many openings. Using your schedule as the reason for saying ‘no’ also keeps you in a positive light. Thank you for thinking of me for this project. I really wish I could take this on right now, but don’t have time in my schedule. Could we delay a few weeks when things open up for me? You can also try some derivative of, Thank you for the opportunity, but unfortunately, my schedule is too full to meet your deadline. Can I refer to you a colleague who may be able to help? I look forward to working together again in the future. Just make sure you have a colleague who you trust, who will return the favor of passing work over to you when they’re overloaded.

The difficult ‘no’

All of these methods for saying no work for most situations, but there are times when you have to say ‘no’ because you don’t want to work with a particular client. Maybe the working relationship is too stressful, or you don’t mesh well with your contact. Either way, jobs from this particular client aren’t fun for you. Again, you need to focus on being polite and not burning any bridges. You might not like this person, but if the perfect opportunity comes along, you could make it work.

For these situations, and I haven’t had many, I use the scheduling approach to my ‘no’ without leaving an easy window to the next opportunity. I’m being respectful, mostly honest, and keeping it light. Thank you so much for thinking of me. I’m sad to say I don’t have the time in my schedule right now for any additional projects. I hope to connect again soon. You’re not offering to pass them off to someone else, since you don’t really like working with them, and you’re not flaunting a desire to work together again in the future. You’re keeping it light without closing the door. It’s a constructive ‘no.’

Sometimes you just have to say it

I don’t think I’ll ever get into a place where I’m okay saying ‘no’ to clients. Currently, I’m lucky to really like everything I’m working on, and everyone I’m working with. I start each day excited about the new things I’m learning and the ways in which I’m able to support and help my clients. I’m in my freelance happy place. I know, at some point, the ‘no’s’ will have to come out again, but until I have to, I’m focusing in the ‘yes’s.’


Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash