How to Say No To Your Clients Without Being a Bitch

I want to talk about managing clients today, because everybody seems to have a love/hate relationship with theirs, and my theory is that the hate part comes from one of two sources:

  1. Tightwads. (Don’t work with them.)
  2. Not knowing how to tell them to BACK OFF, HOMIE.

Begin a slow clap if you've experienced this popular scenario: Client pays you. Client feels entitled to your soul.

Whether they’re being stage-five-clinger needy, asking for more (more & more), showing up in your inbox like a bad new remake of Groundhog Day, making inappropriate requests on your time, or something else, there’s a magic little phrase I want to tell you about that will change your LIFE.

It’s called: “No, sorry.”

You’re worried it sounds a little too gruff, am I right? Too short. Too curt. Too impolite.

But real talk: Your (well-meaning) client isn't worried about sounding too demanding. Why? Because they’re making every attempt to take care of their needs. It’s what clients do. It’s what people do. And you? Need to make every attempt to take care of yours. It’s not selfish. It’s the only way symbiotic relationships like these can work.

Your needs aren’t just money, remember. Your very-real-and-not-made-up-at-all needs also include things like:

:: Being mindful of your work load limits (for example, I can only work for a handful of hours a day doing my best creative work, and it’s something I know about myself and have no choice but to respect)

:: Honoring the hell out of your existing commitments to yourself & your family (even if it’s something as “trivial” as going out for a jog or playing fetch with the dog)

:: Having enough mental space to actually stay sane (this is not an exaggeration)

:: Trying not to inadvertently create resentment or resistance around your work (letting your clients push you around against every cell in your brain screaming, “No! No! No!” is the quickest road to burn out)

:: Enjoying the collaborative process (this is suppose to be enjoyable, remember?)

:: Maintaining your own standards (putting out crap work is for crap people)

:: Feeling good about the way you’re pulling up a seat at the world’s table every single day. (Please pass the Grey Poupon. And a tumbler of jungle juice.)

So while your client might have what they consider urgent needs, you have urgent needs, too. And if you start pooh poohing those needs (“I’ll just do it and save myself the trouble”), you might think you’re preserving your relationship with your client, but you're actually ruining it.

[extra title=”So is trying to lighten your bangs with laundry bleach.” info=”tooltip” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”]Resentment is corrosive. [/extra]

Which brings me back to “No, sorry.”: One of the sexiest languages your business can speak.

It was a beautiful language I had to learn myself – and it's something I have to practice daily. (You didn’t think I came out of the womb with steel reinforced boundaries, did you?)

Lisa, the brilliant woman who taught me how to use this phrase, is one of my oldest mentors (and someone who you should hire if you suck at any of this boundary setting stuff, either professionally or personally).

We talk regularly, and so I asked Lisa: If you could bring the TMF crew a message about setting boundaries—without wanting to set themselves on fire—what would you say?

Here was Lisa's response. (Let's all throw holy water on her head. On the count of three…)

The trick with setting good boundaries is to be very clear, and say things very simply and without drama/emotion. You can't give people something to negotiate with. For example if you say “I can't do that this week”, they can ask you to do it next week. You can be gracious and thank somebody for thinking of you, for asking you, and then provide a very clean and very simple line. Don't insult people with false sentiment—it doesn't make either of you feel better. And…you have to be willing to be a bit uncomfortable for a moment in the present, versus stuck and resentful in a relationship or situation you want no part of in the future. Good boundaries allow us to have the relationships we can truly invest in, honestly, to be truthful with ourselves and with others. And that matters!


“No, sorry.”

“I'm not able to do that for you.”

“That's very generous but I won't be able to do that.”

“Thank you for asking, but I know this isn't right for me right now.”

“I'm focusing on my own work right now.”

“That's not something I feel comfortable discussing.”

Singe those lines into your memory.

After all, clients usually don't intentionally set out to become clingy, needy or otherwise inappropriate—of course they don't! But you have to remember that they're feeling scared. Nervous. And they're turning to you to find that camaraderie, and to hold their hand through it. (Even if this is not what they technically hired you for.)

With that in mind, two other key components I've learned, to Lisa's credit, for helping me mindfully guide clients in the right direction?

Stating what you sense them feeling, and reminding them that they hired you for a reason, and to trust you.

For example, “I can tell you're feeling anxious, but I want to remind you that the reason you hired me was to guide you in the right direction, and I want you to trust that I am doing exactly that.”

Sometimes, a little reassurance goes a long way – especially when it's all too easy for a client to find themselves in a head spin, backtracking & questioning every little choice they're making, which has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them.

It is much more beneficial for you both to gently bring them back down to earth, than it is to just suck it up and do whatever they want so you feel like you've “done a good job.”

Because when you're an expert, doing a good job isn't about taking orders; it's about giving them.

That's what you're getting paid to do; call the shots.

So call 'em.

And remember, it’s not about being stingy – it’s about being giving. Even if that giving looks different than you're used to.

Because neither one of you will be better off if you're locking yourself in your bathroom hiding from the world, downing a bottle of Jack at noon and hoping and praying everyone will just leave you alone.

The natural law of the universe is that people will take whatever they can get…until you stop giving in.

Because, as it turns out, sometimes you have to stop giving in…

…in order to start giving BIG.



Unpopular Ideas for Living a Happier Life.

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