Day 3 – Freelance Conflict Resolution, Step 1: Presume Goodwill


Welcome to Day 3 of the Conquering Client Conflict course!

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Shi – er, conflict, happens. Even in the best of times. Sometimes, even with careful planning, utmost preparation, diligence and good intentions, a problem will present itself (usually in the most crucial moments of the project, because of course). In client-freelancer relationships, the most common conflicts include (but are not limited to) issues of schedule or deadlines, quality of work, and payment. And where there’s conflict, hopefully you’ll also find conflict resolution. Let’s talk about that.

When conflict hits the fan, what do you do? If you feel confused, trapped and frustrated, know that you’re not the only one who feels that way. Veteran consultants, rookie freelancers — it’s all the same. Expect feathers to be ruffled because we’re all equipped with the flight or fight instinct when something is threatening us. Hell, this just happened to me last week, and I’ve been doing this for over a dozen years now!

But what makes a huge difference — what saves the day — is your ability to manage conflict resolution. Conflict resolution skills are important if you want your business to be around for the long haul. It’s essential for survival. It’s necessary for you to evolve and grow. Not just in business, but in life. Our technical skills as freelancers are arguably the least-important element of our businesses – it’s the soft skills that allow us to interact with those fellow human beings we call “clients.”

So, the client has just thrown you a fiery email or you’ve just gotten off the phone after a highly emotional call.

What do you do?

Conflict Resolution Step 1: Presume goodwill

Presuming goodwill is to hold on to the premise that the client is dealing in good faith. You may have reasons for thinking otherwise, but at this point, you’ve got to assume that their reaction is driven by sincere and honest intentions. There are some things to consider as you maintain a presumption of goodwill on the part of the client.

Are your hands clean? Evaluate your role in the situation. Ask yourself if you yourself have any underlying motivations or failures that might have caused the conflict to happen. Just as you assume that the client is acting in good faith, so should you ensure that you have been dealing with them fairly as well. If you haven’t, well…then you’ve got some work to do to make it right.

If the client has complained about something in your work, have you done something to make them feel that there’s a reason to complain? Reassess whether you have kept your promises and are delivering all that is expected from you.

Be nice…until it’s time to not be nice. Conflicts are ugly; that’s a fact of life. The client may show their disappointment, anger or other negative emotions during this time, and most of the time, it’s a normal response. Maintain a professional demeanor and acknowledge their points without necessarily agreeing with them.

But – never accept abuse. Know where the line between constructive criticism and blatant rudeness, or even slander, lies. You still have to protect your reputation. And don’t be afraid to push back on important issues.

Learn to depersonalize. It’s not about you (surprise). Let me say that again – it’s NOT about you. Seriously. You may have put your time, focus, talent and resources on that project, but when it’s under criticism, learn to separate yourself – and your ego — from the work. As in literature and as with software development, the author is dead. Let the work speak for itself.

Ego is toxic to conflict resolution, so it’s helpful to let go of the idea that you have to be right. Don’t focus on which person is right or wrong; the only priority right now is what’s right for the project. That’s where your “win” can be found.

Hear your client out. Many times it’s as simple (or not) as lending an ear. Let your client have their say; sometimes, that’s all they need. As much as possible, find a common ground toward a mutually acceptable/profitable resolution. If all else fails, maybe it’s time to dig deep into a more final solution.

Let me be clear: These are proven, helpful and effective steps to conflict resolution, but also remember that handling, managing and resolving conflict is a hugely personal affair. At the very core, it’s really about your relationship with the client. And your relationship with the client is going to have been framed not from the moment the project started, but from the moment you made first contact with each other.

Once you’re able to presume goodwill, take an honest inventory of your role in the situation, and depersonalize the situation, you’ll then need to hold your client as accountable to the project as you are.

How do you do that? That’s what we’ll tackle together in the next installment.

Homework Assignment – Post Your Answers To The Comments Below!

Before we get to the homework, I just want to share some exciting news – this course was developed using material I wrote for a book, entitled The Furious Freelancer. The book is still a work-in-progress, but as a subscriber to this course you’ll be the first to hear when it’s ready. Plus, I’m going to share the newly-designed book cover with you in just a few days, before anyone else sees it. But that’s a few days away, and you have to earn your chance to see the cover by sticking to the course & the homework.

Today, I sure would appreciate it if you could help me to make sure I’m writing about the things you really want to learn about. You don’t have to do anything fancy, just remember to answer question 0 in the homework below.

With your new understanding of the importance of presuming goodwill, acknowledging your role (if any) and depersonalizing, answer these action items:

0) What’s the one thing you hope the rest of the course will teach you that you haven’t learned yet?

1) When conflicts occur with your clients, what do you typically assume their motivations are?

2) Have you ever been subjected to abusive behavior from a client? If so, what did you do in response?

3) Does the idea that client conflicts are your fault if you’ve failed to set and enforce proper boundaries make you feel more powerful, or less?