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We've all come across them, but not everyone knows how to handle a Negative Nelly client.

Now, before I go much further, I want to acknowledge how problematic the wording of this post is, “Negative Nelly.” I know the implications and I understand. And truth be told, it's not a phrase I use in my conversations. However, I don't often worry about whether or not a search engine will understand what my conversation is about. And so, for the sake of helping search engines find this post and show it to others when they need it, I chose to use the phrase that gets searched for most often, which just happens to be “negative nelly client.”

These are the people for whom optimism doesn't seem to exist. No matter what the occasion, the Negative Nelly can find, focus on, and draw your attention to the pessimistic side of the situation. The just sort of have a knack for it.

While you and I are trying to look on the bright side of things, they are focused on the dark side. And the more you try to appease them, the more they seem to focus on all the things they don't like.

Now, I should also point out that when I am talking about a “Negative Client” or a negative person – I am not talking about someone who has valid complaints. I'm not even really talking about someone who has invalid complaints related to your project. I'm talking about that client who comes to the call:

  • talking about how they don't trust people or how many people have let them down.
  • talking about how they don't like the time slots you had available for their meeting.
  • casually mentioning how it's “just so expensive” to hire a freelance writer.
  • talking about a bad experience they had with another freelance writer but how they're “willing to try again.”
  • believing that their completed book or blog will probably not work the way they are hoping it will work.
  • talking about how their idea for a book won't work or is probably a bad idea.

I am not talking about clients who have complaints about the actual work being done or your performance.

If You Don't Know How to Handle a Negative Nelly Client, they can Prove Disastrous to Your Project

A lot of people handle a “Negative Nelly” client in one of two ways: they either try their best to ignore the negativity and choose to concentrate on the project, or they avoid the client altogether for as long as possible. Neither one of these ways is all that efficient, and both can lead to even more conflict than the project is worth.

Ignore the random complaints and try too hard to focus your attention on the project, and you can end up making your client feel unheard, which can only make the client angrier than they already are.

Avoid them, and the client will simply include you in their list of bad things happening to them. You're just another freelance writer who doesn't respond to their email in a timely fashion or who never picks up the phone. The freelance writer who refuses to listen to them.

And, let's be real: if you want to get paid, you can't avoid them forever. At some point in time, you are going to have to face those clients. And if you've spent all your time avoiding them, that encounter is going to be that much more uncomfortable.

A negative person will talk to anyone and everyone he or she can, and unlike other forms of communication, doesn't stop just because you've chosen to ignore them. Because of this, ignoring negativity has a way of making it even louder.

Negativity spreads

And a negative client helps it spread even faster. By ignoring or avoiding the negative client, you may inadvertently help it pervade your work, your own mood (not to mention the mood of other people), and the overall atmosphere around you.

This means that if you want to be able to do your best work, you have to be able to diffuse a negative client and keep their negativity from interfering with the project. Otherwise you risk being added to their long list of things going wrong in their life.

And I don't know about you, but I never want to be on that list.

But isn't a Negative Nelly's Success Dependent on Their Own Attitude?

Yes and no.

We have a tendency to believe that positive people will always succeed. And therefore, if someone doesn't succeed, then it must be because that person is not doing what positive people do.

We also have a tendency to say that some people put up mental blocks — essentially prohibiting themselves from succeeding and therefore it's all their own fault.

I am not truly a subscriber to either of these beliefs. I do believe that attitude and positivity go a long way. But I also believe that these are not things that come instinctively. Some people have to learn how to think positive. And here's a hint: telling someone to “just stay positive” or “just focus on the positive” doesn't teach them how.

As a freelance writer, you're in the unique position to be able to influence the atmosphere of your working relationship with your client. So, in a real way, his or her success will depend just as much on your attitude as it will on theirs.

Think of a Negative Nelly sort of like a Bomb

Instead of trying to avoid the Negative Nelly in vain, the best way to handle a Negative Nelly as a client is to face him or her straight on and diffuse the negativity like a well-trained bomb technician would diffuse an explosive threat.

There are three basic steps to this process.

  1. Remember your Negative Nelly Client is armed.
  2. Validate your Negative Nelly Client.
  3. Diffuse the negativity.

Let's take a closer look at these steps.

Remember your Negative Nelly Client is armed.

People don't choose to be negative just because they hate being happy. They don't seek out the negative because they don't know how to see the positive. These are the things we tell ourselves to make us feel better about not knowing how to handle them.

But the truth is, they are working with years, even decades, of experience telling them they are right to be negative.

Life itself has taught them that the other shoe will always drop. That no matter how hard they try, something will always go wrong. And that the more they look forward to something, the more disappointed they will be when it comes around.

You may have even heard them say something along these lines. Something like “If you never expect anything from anyone, you won't be disappointed.”

Or even “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

These are the people who do not trust other humans to fulfill promises or uphold responsibilities. In many ways, they don't even trust themselves.

And do you know where people get these ideas from? Because everyone in their lives has let them down, broken promises, or in some other way disappointed them. And the few who didn't are so rare they've been assigned a special designation.

“But what about your mother? She always kept her promises.”

“Yea, but she's my mother — she had to.”

“What about your spouse? Haven't they always been there for you?”

“Yea, but I'm married to them. They don't have a choice.”

The Negative Nelly is able to separate those rare people who haven't disappointed them from the rest of “people.” These rare people are special, and therefore don't count when making their regular generalization that “all people” will ultimately let them down.

Including you. You're “all people” until you prove otherwise.

Remember to validate your Negative Nelly.

One of the first things freelance writers try to do when they discover they have a Negative Nelly in their midst is to explain how that Negative Nelly is “wrong.” They try to point out all the ways that the Negative Nelly is mistaken and all the ways they are not going to let them down.

This almost never works.

Remember step one: the Negative Nelly is armed with the knowledge that he or she is right.

You aren't fighting objective logic, but rather private logic ruled by emotions and proven by experience. They aren't wrong for guarding themselves against the disappointment, or for believing that your meeting, party, or social gathering will somehow end in disappointment for them.

You're wrong because you don't understand them.

Rather than trying to explain to them about how wrong you think they are, the best way to handle a Negative Nelly is to validate their concerns and recognize just how they might be right. This will let them know you at least understand them — even if you don't agree with them.

No one likes to be ignored. And if a Negative Nelly believes you aren't hearing them, then they have no reason to believe you when you tell them how much they will enjoy working with you.

Remember, you don't have to agree with the Negative Nelly in order to understand their feelings.

Diffuse the Negativity.

The last step is to simply diffuse the negativity.

For most Negative Nellies, once they've been heard and know that you understand where they're coming from, they are more receptive to hearing you from the other side. And if you tell them all about those positive things you're expecting, they are less likely to speak out against it.

Once you let them know how much fun, excitement, or positivity you have planned, the final key is to draw their constructive energy in with a question.

Asking a question allows the Negative Nelly to become part of the solution he or she is wanting you to come up with, and again validates their concerns so they know they've been heard. It is a nice, peaceful way to invite them over to the positive side without trying to tell them they are wrong, ignore them, or trying to avoid them all together.

Check out the following examples of how you might handle a Negative Nelly client.

In the two examples that follow, you'll be able to see this formula in action.

You're on a call with your client, and they talking about all the past freelance writers who were horrible to work with and had “bad attitudes.” The perfect response to this: “Oh I know exactly what you mean. I've worked with some pretty bad writers myself. But this is going to be so much fun! I've got a few ideas already lined up, including ___________. Do you have a specific idea in mind for ____________?”

  • Oh I know exactly what you mean. (Remember they are armed)
  • I've worked with some pretty bad writers myself. (Validate their feelings)
  • I've got a few ideas already lined up, including __________. Do you have a specific idea in mind for _____________? (Diffuse the negativity)

You're following up with a client after sending several recommendations for content strategy, and the client “hates” every suggestion but doesn't offer any specific reasons as to why they can't execute any of them. The perfect response: “I know how overwhelming it can be to look at a huge list of things that need to be done. The good news is, we can break this list down into different priorities; do the actionable items first so we can start seeing results right away. What metric are you wanting to focus on first?”

  • I know how overwhelming it can be to look at a huge list of things that need to be done. (Remember they are armed)
  • The good news is, we can break this list down into different priorities (Validate their feelings)
  • …do the actionable items first so we can start seeing results right away. What metric are you wanting to focus on first? (Diffuse the negativity)

In both of these examples, I didn't necessarily agree with the client (or their feelings) but I did recognize the fact that I understood them, I acknowledged them, and then I promptly invited them to help me find a solution.

What if I just Don't Accept Work from a Client who is a Negative Nelly?

You can absolutely make it a part of your overall strategy to avoid taking on projects from Negative Nelly Clients.

Unfortunately, sometimes it can be hard to tell who's a Negative Nelly and who isn't until you've already started working — especially if it took them a while to find you. So, even if you plan on avoiding working with negative clients, in the cases for when you don't find out about your client's negative habits until you're already keyboard-deep into the project, it's best to know how to handle a Negative Nelly client anyway.

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