Monday Muse: Knowing Your Boundaries

What I’m listening to: Hey There Delilah by Plain White T’s

angry-kitty-1250154-1279x852After a week that, for the most part, was internet-free, I’m back to a mountain of emails.

I was thinking about an encounter I’d had a while back, and it was one that tested my ability to draw clear boundaries. And if you know me at all, you know I think strong professional boundaries make for better client relationships, better work results, and better business results.

Yet in this particular encounter, the client’s emotional outburst upset that balance. And I let it happen.

I won’t go into details as they’re not all that important, but what is important is my reaction. I reacted to strong emotion by acquiescing. I wanted to make this client happy, though after practically being accused of unethical behavior, I should have told the client no. And I would have done so in a much more professional manner than was coming from the client.

I remember being really upset about the whole situation — with the client and mostly with myself for not stopping the spiral cold. I entered the maelstrom, and I resented the client, and to be honest, myself. I let someone push at my boundaries and breach them.

So what do you do when faced with a situation that threatens to break down your boundaries?

Insert a time-out. That scathing email or nasty phone message does not have to be answered immediately. Pause. Think. Go over the facts. Don’t respond until you’re in a better place.

Remove emotion. Look at the client’s points without the emotional nonsense. Is there a valid point in there somewhere? Are you at fault for anything? If so, how do you propose to fix it? If not, how do you plan to let the client know your position?

Assert cordially. Let’s face it — if your client has sent a harsh email or left a stinging voice message, you’re going to get more of the same when you respond. Again, remove emotion. No pointing the finger, no answering emotionally charged questioning — stick to the facts.

Jot down your points. In my case, the client had it all wrong, and was bordering on sounding like an employer, basically dictating that I couldn’t work for another client at the same time I was working for this client. In that case, it would have been wise of me to point that out, that because I am a freelance writer, I am not beholden to one client. Unless I was disparaging client A in client B’s project or I’d signed some non-compete agreement, it’s not for the client to tell me what I can and cannot do. So I should have written down my points before picking up the phone.

Insert a Stop sign. Suppose you agree to fix something that isn’t really broken. It’s a good-faith move on your part. Yet the target keeps moving, and you’re now stuck in a vortex of “No, I need this now” requests. Stop. Pull the plug and tell the client why. Point out evidence if there is any that you’ve done your job and then some. Keep emotion out of it completely. No angry words, no exasperation, no pushing. Just facts. And don’t respond to the backlash — that keeps you locked in a he said/she said argument that’s pointless and unprofessional.

Writers, has a client ever pushed your boundaries?

How did you handle situations where the client was leading with emotions?

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  • Anne Wayman October 17, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Lori, I learned a new to me technique when I get well and truly upset with someone. I now write out what I wish had happened. Not sure why that helps, but it does.

    And if I can identify what deep seated something got triggered, that makes it, sometimes, easier to let go.

    • lwidmer October 17, 2016 at 10:21 am

      I like that, Anne. It’s a good visual, too. If I can see it, I can see where it went wrong.

  • Cathy Miller October 17, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    One of the traits that I recognized about myself during my corporate career was my propensity for reacting emotionally to criticism. I was often overly sensitive. When I recognized that, I learned to step away from the situation, let my emotions play out, then separate my issues from those of the critic. Like you said, Lori, look for any valid points. Then dismiss their issues (hang-ups/shortcomings, whatever). I used to say, I have enough of my own problems without taking on theirs, too.

    As we know, this is not an easy process, and it’s easy to stumble into old habits. Wishing you many Zen moments, Lori. 😉

    • lwidmer October 18, 2016 at 2:27 pm

      Cathy, you and I share that similar propensity, I see. 🙂 When it comes out of left field, it’s often tough to prepare for. And I’m not one to always assume the client is about to hit me with emotional outbursts — rather the opposite. I assume clients are professionals who know how to conduct business appropriately.

      You’re right — it’s way too easy to stumble into those old habits. Harder to stand your ground and take the heat based on facts, not emotions.

  • Paula Hendrickson October 18, 2016 at 11:24 am

    I had a similar case less than a year ago. It was my first (and thankfully last) project for this client, so I asked plenty of questions before I started and ran potential sources by her. She okayed most and suggested others. Yet when I turned my copy in, suddenly the sources weren’t good enough. Emotionally, I wanted to scream, “Then why did you approve or suggest them?”

    She gave me three weeks to complete my revision (I’d turned in the copy around Labor Day and she waited until a day or two before Christmas to ask for the revision, and I’d taken the last two weeks of the year off). Try finding three new sources the first week of January! A few days into the new year, she cut a week off my deadline, saying they needed the copy immediately. When I said I’d do my best, she actually questioned my professionalism. (“You led me to believe you were a professional!”) I needed a self-imposed time out after that.

    Somehow I got all the changes in (all of her additions made the piece swell well beyond the assigned word count, but it was a flat fee deal, argh.) All she said was “Got it.” That was January. In May I learned through someone else thatshe sat on the article until April, which was about the time a new owner took over the company. My piece was axed and she didn’t have the guts—or professionalism—to tell me. The person who did tell me was surprised I didn’t know about it, and must have mentioned it to the editor because she then emailed saying. “Sorry. I thought someone told you.”


    And I’m the unprofessional one? Riiiiight.

    I think a big factor that makes us less likely to speak up when these things happen is that we don’t want to be branded as unprofessional.

    • lwidmer October 18, 2016 at 2:28 pm

      Paula, I remember you mentioning that case. So in essence, your editor sat on those revisions until the last minute, then put it on you to get it done on time when she essentially dragged her feet. Yet you’re unprofessional. I agree with you — riiiight.

      • Paula Hendrickson October 18, 2016 at 5:34 pm

        “Mentioning it.” What a nice way to say whining, griping, venting, and complaining!