I think saying no is one of the earliest, most difficult, and most repetitive lessons you’re faced with as a freelancer.
I was certainly confronted by it in dramatic fashion early on, when I was booked on to a project and then told I needed to do it for 50% less than the ballpark figure I’d quoted (presumably, although they never said, because they either hadn’t collectively approved it or they hadn’t added a margin when it went to the paying stakeholder). I didn’t want to give an outright no because it was a brand I cared about, so I gave an olive branch: I was happy to revisit the figure now that we knew more about the project, and to discuss areas we could scale back on if needed. I was met with an all or nothing response, so the no was inevitable. I didn’t even have to be the one to say it.
Painful as this experience was at the time – not so much financially, but personally – it stood me in good stead. I’d learned in that moment about enabling a no; standing firmly and politely enough under pressure until the other party either comes around or sees themselves out. I’d also learned the hard way to trust my gut. Because as much as I would’ve preferred a quick-fix resolution, I knew it wasn’t fair and wouldn’t do me any favours in the long run.
Since then, I’ve said no a lot. It comes in different forms, from the outright; “no, I don’t shoot weddings/student projects/sports tournaments but thank you for thinking of me”, to the open-ended; “for that, we’d need more time/budget/resource…”
The power of a positive no, to me, is that you’re really saying yes to what matters. Protecting your rates matters. Mutual respect definitely matters. Being able to do work that you’re proud of, rather than having to cut corners, matters. Not over-committing yourself matters (still working on this one!). Saving your time and energy for the projects you align with most matters. Being able to say when something’s not working matters, and – this is a post for another time but – spoiler alert: you can have these discussions without it ever getting ugly.
It will just always be the case that some people hate being told no, and a power struggle can bring out the sharpest edges in people. But it’s kind of a blessing in disguise when they show themselves. Consider it a near-miss from what could well have become a nightmare project or a toxic working relationship – neither of which you signed up for when you chose to go after what working well looks like for you.
Bottom line? Saying no is essential, it can be difficult but it’s allowed, and it’s a skill you can practice. If you’re struggling with it, remember: it’s making way for a more important yes.