How to Handle Rejection and Criticism as a Freelancer

Summary: No one likes to be rejected or criticized. But if you're a freelancer or solopreneur, you’d better get used to it. And in this episode, guest contributor Mark McGuinness will show you some very practical steps you can take to take the sting out of the experience.

rejectedNo one likes to be rejected or criticized, but if you choose the freelancing path, you’d better get used to it.

Whether you’re pitching for new business, presenting deliverables to clients or dealing with feedback on your work, you are exposed to rejection and criticism on a daily basis.

This is true of many professions, but there are two things that make it particularly challenging for freelancers:

1. Many clients lack your professional knowledge, so they struggle to articulate their criticisms clearly and constructively.

2. You’re on your own. You don’t have colleagues to prepare and encourage you before you present your work or to debrief and support you afterward. If a meeting has gone badly, it’s just you and your thoughts on the lonely ride home.

Having coached hundreds of freelancers over the years, I know that rejection and criticism can be spirit crushers as well as business killers. It’s hard to motivate yourself for the next project — or to redo the same one — when a piece has just been shredded by a client who doesn’t understand your work or care about your feelings.

So what can you do about it?

Don’t Take It Personally

One of the things I’ve noticed from working with freelancers is how many of us take rejection and criticism personally.

Over and over, I hear coaching clients asking what’s wrong with them and their work, when from the outside it looks like their clients were actually the ones at fault or the jobs just weren’t the right fit.

This is partly because, as self-motivated creative people, we take pride in our work and put our heart and soul into it. So when we submit a piece of work, it feels like it's us in the firing line. No wonder rejection and criticism are so painful!

And when you’re dwelling on the situation alone, it’s very easy to blow things out of proportion.

The bad news is that as long as you take pride in your work, rejection and criticism are going to sting. But it does get less sharp with time and repeated exposure. And it makes a big difference when you realize that rejection and criticism are just occupational hazards of freelancing. And they're not to be taken as blanket judgments on you as a person or as a professional.

In fact, if you’re not being rejected or criticized, you’re probably not putting yourself out there enough. In which case, you’re unlikely to achieve something remarkable.

rejection is not fatalHow to Handle Rejection

Feel the pain and do it anyway

The football (soccer) coach Martin O’Neill once said in an interview that he allows his teams 48 hours to recover from a defeat (and the same to celebrate a victory). During that time, he wants to see them feeling sorry for themselves, because it shows they care.

After that it’s back to training as usual.

Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Give yourself a day or two to roll with the punch and recover, and then get back to work.

Don’t overthink why you got rejected

If you get useful feedback, make the most of it. But a lot of the time you're not told the reason (or the real reason) for the rejection — and it’s easy to torture yourself by wondering and worrying why.

But you’ll never know for sure. So stop thinking about it and start focusing on the next opportunity.

Keep filling your opportunity funnel

The more opportunities you put yourself out there for, the better your odds of success. And the more relaxed, engaging and persuasive you will be when talking to prospective clients about any one opportunity.

So keep networking, marketing, pitching, and listening to your existing clients, so that no single situation ever feels like a "make or break" thing.

One acceptance makes up for a lot of rejections

Savor success when it arrives — remember O’Neill’s 48-hour rule. And remind yourself of it during the tough times.

how to handle criticsmWhat to Do With Criticism

Educate your clients

Recognize that part of your job is to educate your clients in the language of your craft. They don’t have your skills or expertise, so it’s up to you to help them understand why you have taken a particular approach to a project and how to articulate their responses to your work.

This can be difficult, but it's a great investment in the working relationship. If a client learns to critique your work constructively, you will deliver better results and everyone will be happier.

Don’t get defensive or aggressive

It’s easy to snap back when someone gives you stinging criticism. But that usually makes things worse for you. So pause and take a deep breath before you respond.

Find out what they mean (even if they’re not sure themselves)

Before you decide what to do about criticism, it’s essential to find out exactly what your client is unhappy about.

If the criticism is vague, ask questions to find out what specifically is the issue. That gives you the best shot at a solution. It should also earn you respect for dealing with the criticism in a professional manner.

Ask solution-focused questions

Once you understand the concerns, ask questions that invite the client to buy into a workable solution. For example:

“If I can fix this part, will you be happy to sign off?”

“What do I need to change for this to meet the brief?”

“What would the ideal solution look like to you?”

Know when to draw the line

I always advocate being positive and collaborative at first. But it takes two to tango. If a client doesn’t respond with respect and reasonable flexibility, ask yourself whether it’s worth it — or whether you’re better off walking away.

spark and hustle (image)

The Long-Term Solution: Establish Yourself as an Expert

When I started out, I spent a lot of time on the phone, hustling for business. After enduring plenty of rejections I pulled in plenty of business, but I realized this approach wasn’t fun or sustainable in the long term.

So I started a business blog, and after a few months I was pleasantly surprised to find potential clients — the kind of people who wouldn’t have returned my calls before — phoning and emailing me.

When I went in for sales meetings, they complimented me on the blog, as if I were a published author. Instead of having to sell to them, they asked me what I would advise.

Seven years later, my blogs, newsletter, ebooks and book mean that I reach thousands of readers every day, which means the phone rings and the email pings a lot more than they did before. And I’m attracting the kind of clients who are a blast to work with.

When people come to you, they are more respectful. It makes rejection irrelevant. You are interviewing them as much as the other way around. You will always get criticism, but if there’s a foundation of mutual respect in the relationship, it’s much easier to work with it.

So if you really want to take the sting out of rejection and criticism, make it your mission to establish yourself as an expert.

There are lots of ways to do it:

  • Start a blog, newsletter or podcast
  • Write a book
  • Speak at conferences
  • Host a networking event
  • Launch a successful product

These kinds of projects will act as an opportunity magnets, establishing you as an authority and attracting new clients and opportunities.

Not only that, it's tremendously satisfying to work on a big project of your own, improving and developing it over time. Even if you’re having a bad day with a client, spending an hour writing a blog post or book chapter, preparing a presentation, or sending out invitations to your next event, can help you maintain a sense of control and momentum.

How About YOU?

How do you handle rejection and criticism?

Which ideas from this article resonate most strongly with you?

Seasoned pros: any tips for those who are new to this?

Mark McGuinnessMark McGuinness is a creative business coach based at LateralAction.com and the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.

 

 


  • Reenika Avasthi

    Hi, today was a 'rejection' day for me and thanks to your post that I regained my senses back. After doing everything alone, this post served me a reminder that 'I am not alone' and its part and parcel of freelancing business.

  • nolan wilson

    Rejection is just part of life as a freelancer. While it is hard not to take it personally, landing new projects can be a numbers game. You need to put yourself out there, continue to network and build your reputation over time.

  • Great advice! Rejection is still hard but I just remind myself that the answer can only be "no" if you don't ask.

  • Madeleine Kolb

    One thing that's helped me deal with feedback/ criticism is belonging to Toastmasters. After every speech a person gets an evaluation in the meeting. The basic format is (1) here's what you did well, (2) here are some suggestions to make your speech ever better, and (3) here's a quick summary of what you did well.

    Admittedly, a lot of feedback from supervisors or clients isn't done so skillfully. But the experience of giving and receiving helpful evaluations helps a person deal with the unskilled feedback/ rejection that's so prevalent.

    • Toastmasters sounds like a great environment. And you're right - once you've sampled really high quality feedback (even if it's suggesting improvement) you realise unskilled feedback says as much about the critic as about your work.

      I get a similar effect from attending a poetry workshop where the teacher and students have feedback down to an art.

  • Hi Mark,

    I used to take rejection personally, but I don't anymore. I keep and apply any constructive feedback I receive from clients and or colleagues. On the other hand, if the information I receive doesn't resonate with me, I discard it or file it away for another day.

    What resonated with me

    I agree that it's important not to get defensive or aggressive. This doesn't resolve anything and will make your blood pressure rise. 🙂 Plus, you want to remain professional at all times.

    Question the expert?

    As far as "make it your mission to establish yourself as an expert" goes, I've read a few blog posts that recommended tossing out the word 'expert' because it could deter people from contacting you. It could even deter readers from reading your blog. Apparently, the word 'expert' can intimidate people. Instead of being seen as an expert, you're seen as a know-it-all. What do you think about this?

    Final thoughts

    My advice to anyone who's new to freelancing is to accept rejection and criticism with grace. If being rejected or criticized are the worst things that happen to you in your entire life, you're doing something right. Don't sweat it. Shake it off and move forward with your career.

    • Thanks Amandah, I appreciate your thoughts. And amen to this: "If being rejected or criticized are the worst things that happen to you in your entire life, you're doing something right."

      Re 'expert' - again, I agree with you. I certainly wouldn't recommend using the word 'expert' about oneself, that would be a real turn-off, for the reasons you give.

      When I say "establish yourself as an expert" I mean via deeds, not words - i.e. educating ourselves, learning from experience and sharing what we have learned. Of course it's for others to decide whether we have succeeded, but that's the aspiration. 🙂