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The People-Pleaser’s Guide To Standing Up For Yourself In Business

“I can’t say no to the client who wants to reschedule for the fourth time….even though it’s a free session!”

“I already did three extra hours of work as a favor, and this client just wants more!”

“I’m a nice person, and I feel like people are taking advantage of me.  How do I tell them no without ruining my reputation?”

Does this sound like you in your business?  Do you have trouble saying no because you feel like you’re being mean, or that it’s against your personality?  Do you bend over backwards to help people, and then find yourself in some nightmarish situations?

You’re not alone.  Lots of creative businesspeople feel this way.

Here are three steps to understanding why this happens, and how to handle it:

Step One:  Accept that the instinct to help others is not inherently a weakness.

It’s tough being nice in business.  People will call you a “doormat” and callously say you need to “get over it” and “grow up” and otherwise stop being “weak.”  Maybe you even tell yourself that.  And nothing is more emotionally exhausting than trying to be nice to everyone, and then feeling ashamed that your niceness is a bad thing.

But people-pleasing can come from a place of strength, not weakness.  Here’s why:

Human beings are inherently social.  One thing that helps hold our social groups together is something called reciprocity.  Reciprocity just means that when you do something nice for someone, they will want to turn around and do something nice for you.

Reciprocity is a fundamental component of human behavior that allows us to organize societies and live in neighborhoods and do all sorts of great things, because we trust that when we make an effort to do something for someone else, others will generally do the same in return.

Reciprocity was crucial for survival throughout history.  The people who did nice things for others could count on others doing nice things for them.

Imagine yourself living hundreds of years ago – helping your neighbor when they were out of food also ensured that you’d probably receive help next time YOU were out of food.  Animal research (such research is difficult to do in humans) indicates that mothers who cultivate these kind of strong social bonds have offspring who are more likely to survive.

From an evolutionary perspective, “helping others” is as powerful of a survival instinct as “fighting” or “dominating others.”  It doesn’t mean that helping others is always selfish, or that we should help with the ultimate goal of getting help for ourselves.  Rather, it’s a pleasant part of our human heritage that good things happen to you when you’re good to others.

In short, the desire to help others is not a bad thing.  It is an advantage to be controlled, not stomped out and eliminated.

(Side note:  There are circumstances where people-pleasing comes from a place that needs to be addressed – like a clinical fear of abandonment, the urge to mask your own problems by going to extremes to help others, etc.  Qualified counselors can help in these situations.  In most business people I come across, though, their desire to help others is simply a gift that they need to learn how to use more intentionally.)

Step Two:  Recognize that in some situations, not everyone plays by the “nice” rules.

Here’s the problem:  “Helping everyone” creates a great atmosphere when you’re around the same, relatively small group of people over a long period of time.

And throughout human history, this is how most of us have lived, so it worked out well.

For example, if you and I lived in the same neighborhood, we’d see each other a lot.  We’d have a lot of chances to shovel snow off of each other’s sidewalks, hold each other’s mail when we go on vacation, water each other’s plants, etc.  That doesn’t mean we’re explicitly helping each other to get helped ourselves.  It’s just how we’d create a neighborly atmosphere that’s pleasant to live in.  Everyone chips in, everyone gets what they need.  If any one neighbor in our area is a sourpuss and refuses to help anyone else, well, eventually that comes back to bite them.  The way to maximize your enjoyment of your neighborhood is to be nice, not to be a jerk.

However here’s the problem:  Your clients are not your neighbors.

They’ve got a much shorter-term investment in your relationship.  They can come and go in a relatively quick fashion.  And in purely behavioral terms, that means that they can get away with being a demanding sourpuss, and they don’t suffer the same consequences for that behavior as if they were living next door to you.

In a marketplace, people do not behave the same way that they would in their own neighborhood. They can sometimes get more for themselves by being belligerent and pushing you past your limits.

So if you respond by continually caving to their demands, this puts you in an impossible situation.  Because they’re thinking like a short-term client, whereas you’re thinking like a long-term neighbor.  And in that situation, the long-term neighbor will get taken advantage of.

Don’t worry, the solution here isn’t to become mean and nasty yourself.

If you go back and read The Two-Hundred Dollar Attitude, you’ll see that I firmly advocate giving the benefit of the doubt and showing good faith in others.  Because being kind in business DOES win out in the end.

I share this information because it’s important that you see that there are different sets of rules for our behavior.

And most of the time, conflict comes when people are playing by different sets of rules in the same situation.  Particularly when you’re behaving like a friendly neighbor, and a client is taking the short-term strategy of squeezing every minute of your time they can get.

When you find that a client is playing by a different set of rules, or is trying to take advantage of you, now’s the time for:

Step Three:  Fall back on what I call the “Fairness Triangle.”

It’s an easy way to determine whether you should do what they ask, or stand up and say no.

I call it a ‘triangle’ because there are usually three sides to fairness in business:  What’s fair to them, fair to you, and fair to your other clients.

When someone is making an unreasonable request, and you’re prone to cave and “just do it,” take a minute to step away from the situation and cool down.  This is just one person – they do not have the final say in who you are.  You have choices.  Deep breaths.

When you’re ready, look at the first side –

Is fulfilling this request truly fair to them? 

Have you already fully delivered on what they paid you to do?  Have you kept a two-hundred dollar attitude and dealt generously and kindly with them throughout the process?

If so, and feel they’re still overstepping and wanting more, time to look at the second side.

Is what they’re asking fair to you

For example, say they want extra Photoshop work done beyond what you normally deliver.  And in this case, it’s not a situation of throwing in a small tweak to be generous, it’s going against a stated policy or throwing in something that should be billed at your hourly rate.

Is this fair to you?  Is it fair to sacrifice getting sleep or taking care of yourself?  Is it fair to your spouse who will be waiting to start your promised movie night for another hour while you “finish one more thing”?  Is it fair to your kids, friends, and other responsibilities?

Sometimes this is hard to judge.  Sometimes it really is worth sacrificing a little sleep to wow a client.  For these situations, here is my personal yardstick:

“If I did this for every client, would my business and my relationships still be intact after a year?”

If what they’re asking for is not scalable to every client, and would prevent you from fulfilling all your responsibilities and staying in business, then it’s beyond what you can deliver.  It’s unwise to set a precedent that you can’t fulfill for everyone, anyway.  Which brings us to the third side:

Is it fair to your other clients?

If Seth gets something for free, is it fair to bill James $100 for the same thing?

If Sarah makes a special request, is it fair to put Sandra’s work on hold while you take care of it?

I don’t presume to know the answers, but it’s important to consider.  If you’re exhausting yourself helping one unreasonable client, you may be diminishing your ability to be fully present in helping another.  That’s not good for business, either.

If any one side is notably absent from the triangle, then it’s time to stand up and say no.

And the good news is, you can say no by saying “yes.”  Like this:

“Yes, I’d be happy to turn around these images in 48 hours; I have a special rush fee of $149 for these exact situations.  Just fulfill the attached invoice and I’ll have it back to you in a jiffy!”

Is their request something you truly can’t accommodate?  You can still help them get what they want by telling them what you can do instead, or referring them to someone who loves that sort of thing:

“Unfortunately that falls outside of my expertise/outside of our agreed-upon fee, however, what I CAN do is _________.”

“While I can’t take care of that personally, I’d be more than happy to refer you to three of my associates who love that kind of work!  Here are their names and phone numbers: __________, ___________, ___________.”

You don’t have to sacrifice helping other people to be in business.  You just have to know the boundaries of what you can do, and what is fair.

Understand that your niceness is a strength, and use it well.  When someone plays by a different set of rules, fall back on the fairness triangle, and stay positive in your replies.  When you frame it that way, things become easier.  You can do it!


P.S.   Off-Topic News Flash:  I’m really excited this week. 

Why?  Because I like reaching a lot of people through my blog, but I dislike reading about technical Google-ish wizardry that can help build an audience.  Anytime I try to read about SEO, my eyes glaze over.  Like donuts, people.

So awhile back I hired Zach Prez, a 10-year veteran of internet marketing, for a personal SEO consulation.  I loved that he didn’t overwhelm me with info – he just told me exactly what to do.  He pulled up my WordPress page and helped me fill in all the boxes, explained what terms meant, and showed me which things to care about and which I didn’t need to worry about.

The cool part is, he wrote all this advice up into an e-book, “Recipes to Rank Higher:  The Search Engine Cookbook for Photographers,” which he launched this week.  I decided to be an affiliate for this e-book because if you’re like me and don’t want to become an SEO expert, you just want someone who knows what’s what to tell you what to do, Zach’s your guy.  He makes it clear and simple.  And talking about SEO in terms of food?  I’m in.

I recommend checking out this e-book, if for no other reason than to see Zach wearing a pretty awesome chef’s hat:  Recipes to Rank Higher:  The Search Engine Cookbook for Photographers.  His special launch price runs through June 12th.  Enjoy!

SEO for Photographers ebook - Rank easy


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  1. Lawrence on June 4, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I was just talking about being able to say “No” to a friend of mine on FaceBook last night. She is an author and spends most of her time helping others by reviewing their books but no-one returns the favour.
    I guess we all get sucked into the “it is expected of me” mentality and it is hard to break out of.
    Love the idea of the book as SEO sucks and I also prefer donuts. Going to click on the link as soon as done here.
    You may have a sale Mr Affiliate!

  2. WendyB on June 5, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for this article. It was a refreshing reminder that I needed to hear. Even though photography can be a business that brings a smile to your face and others, it can also become frustrating at times if you don’t stand your ground!

    • Jenika on June 5, 2013 at 5:39 pm

      Thanks for the note, Wendy! 🙂 I completely agree….best of luck in your work!

  3. Lesley on July 26, 2013 at 3:55 am

    I will most likely spend the next day or week reading all of your posts! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this all out, especially in a way that any photographer can appreciate. The sentence that most gets to me is “…if you respond by continually caving to their demands, this puts you in an impossible situation.” Which is so true. Thanks again.

    • Jenika on July 26, 2013 at 4:15 am

      Thank you for your note, Lesley! I’m so glad the blog is helpful….that’s what I hope it’s there for! 😀 Pleasure to “meet” you and I hope to see you around here again! (P.S. Some of the best stuff is actually in the free e-book, which you get if you want to be on my email list.) Have a great day!

  4. Maria on December 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Great post. I like how you place those extras and favours in context. It’s too easy to be tempted by requests and forget the long term consequences… specially the bitter taste for people who haven’t or won’t be getting the same deal.

  5. Robin Owen on December 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Great post! I really enjoy reading your blog. 🙂

  6. Akram khan on December 10, 2020 at 12:21 am

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