Strap yourself in folks. I’m about to go on a rant!

I hate it when clients gaslight freelancers. Gaslighting is where someone tries to convince someone of a different reality to the one they’re currently facing. And it’s designed to undermine your confidence and manipulate you. I will preface this by saying most clients are brilliant, and there are valid reasons why clients might be unhappy with your work or not ready to pay your invoice. But unfortunately these manipulative kinds of clients are not those clients, and they can really impact your confidence.

This behaviour can show up in a bunch of different ways.

The ‘I didn’t say that!’ gaslighter

This is the classic gaslighter. The client who is trying to convince you that they didn’t say something they did (this is why a paper trail and recorded meetings are so important). I had one who agreed to my terms and conditions, including my fee, then tried to claim that they didn’t agree to pay me. Thankfully I had a paper trail.

This kind can also be the kind to say “I’m sorry you thought I said that”….which is the worst non-apology you can offer, and can make you doubt your own memory.

The ‘You’re too sensitive’ gaslighter

Facing a conflict with your client? This gaslighter will tell you it’s not them, it’s you being too sensitive.

The ‘I don’t want to pay so I’m going to make it seem like your fault/how dare you chase me’ gaslighter

A prime example is when a project seems to have gone well, then when it comes to paying you….they suddenly pull out loads of problems they apparently have with you or what you’ve done, all to put off paying. They’ll convince you that you’ve done a bad job, even if all the feedback before this was positive. And if that doesn’t work, it often leads to them being really unkind or even sending personal insults, to wear down your confidence, and make YOU feel like the bad person. Or attacking you for daring to even chase the invoice.

Sadly I’ve seen the ‘attacking you for daring to pull me up on not doing my part of the deal’ scenario far too many times. Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle too. They might give you a personal reason for why they can’t pay the invoice (in which case, you may want to suggest a payment scheme, but also you’re well within your rights to say “I’m sorry to hear you’ve experienced that, however I have completed the work agreed, so the invoice will need to be paid by X”) While personal reasons are not always a sign of gaslighting, them using it to attack you can be.

The ‘I’ve changed my mind and want to do something different, and I don’t want to pay you for what you’ve done’ one

Or (and this isn’t quite gaslighting, but it’s manipulation) you do the work, then they decide they’re going in another direction and don’t want to pay you because ‘I’m not going to use it’. Or completely change the brief, and expect you to redo the work or create a whole new piece of work, without paying for the first, because they changed their mind. This also applies when they send you their amendments, and it’s a total rework.

Think about it this way – would you hire a plumber to install a new bathroom, then change your mind when it was finished and ask them to install an entirely different bathroom? There’s a difference between a client not being happy with the result of your work, and them changing their mind about what they want.

So, what can we do about clients who gaslight?

As freelancers, being gaslighted by clients can be a difficult and damaging experience. I put this out to social media, and it makes me so angry how many freelancers have experienced confidence issues after a client like this. Great freelancers, who go above and beyond. Who do all the right things. But feel worn down by this experience. Just because the client didn’t want to pay up or play fair.

So, how do we avoid this?

  • First of all, keep an eye out for red flags. Do they refuse to agree to your terms and conditions? Avoid paper trails? Push for a discount from the off? Try to have lots of communications on phone calls, without allowing you to record it? Seem to have worked with a LOT of freelancers who haven’t worked out? Red flags.
  • Create a paper trail for everything, and record any meetings you might have. Keep it somewhere you both have access, but can’t be deleted. Emails are a good way to do this.
  • Send those terms and conditions, and don’t start work until they’ve confirmed them
  • Check in regularly for feedback. This allows you to keep on top of any minor amendments needed and gives you an opportunity to fix anything within your control, and also gives you a paper trail in case they change their mind once the invoice has been sent.
  • And finally, if they do try to gaslight you, especially around payment, do not engage in tit for tat. Calmly state the current situation through facts only, what is owed, and if necessary you may want to escalate to a letter warning about further action. Gaslighters very rarely continue once they see you show strength.
  • Reach out to your freelance support network to get some moral support, and potentially even legal support. Don’t try to deal with this on your own, there are so many people who can help you, and help you feel more confident. The Facebook group is fantastic for this.

I want to do something more on this, especially around the confidence side of things, and how to help people who have had a confidence hit on it. I have heard so many stories in the last few days through social media on how a client’s behaviour has impacted them. It’s something I can do 1-2-1 in coaching, but I’d love to create something that helps more people. Watch this space!

Have you experienced gaslighting or manipulation from a client? What did you learn from it?