In the 12 years I have been working as a high-demand, self-employed music teacher, I have garnered a lot of unexpected lessons which I have been able to apply throughout my career with confidence and success.I see a much higher volume of clients in an intimate setting on a daily and weekly basis than most normal job positions, which has led me into some interesting relationship dynamics for better and for worse.
These points come from an independent view, but can be applied to any work scenario with the right mindset:
1) Know Your Scope
Make a list, mental or written, of the most ridiculous things customers or clients have asked of you. We have all had this experience at any job, either from a boss, or Karen on the other side of the coffee counter. Laugh at those past experiences, and remember, people can be ridiculous when they have no idea what they're asking for.
Now, make a list of the things you know you wouldn't do that any reasonable person might assume you'd offer. For me, it's driving to students houses even though I have a huge, super professional music studio with all my teaching materials. People ask me to do that all the time.
Third, make a list of what you understand to be your job description. It can be a huge list, as long as you are comfortable delivering each item with enthusiasm!
Lastly, we have to consider the micro-requests. These are things that don't always pertain to the job, like going for coffee with a client or co-worker, or things that are easy to let slide, like someone who takes up your time with chatter or extra service, even if it's just ten minutes.
Go through your own experience and remember all the little things that got messy and felt like they were in that grey area—some of them turn out okay, some of them don't. Take some time to reflect and keep compiling these experiences as they occur to know when to say "no."
2) It's Nice to Say "No"
Growing up, I remember my mom always telling me, "Just ask! The worst thing they can do is say no." Which, apparently, is a lesson well learned by every single person who has walked into my studio.
Alternatively, as a young female entrepreneur, I felt that I had to say "yes" to every single person, place, and thing in order to be liked, allowed, noticed, or gain clientele, or I would risk being seen as a "bitch," or rigid, at the very least.
This is a toxic mindset, and I hope that if you've learned it, you are ready to step into your own and let it go!
That said, always decline any request that doesn't align with your best practice. My approach is to kindly say no, and then explain. People always appreciate understanding why you won't do something, so be sure to tell them in a compassionate manner:
"Would you drive to our house if we paid you extra?"
"I don't have scheduling availability to do that, and as well, everything I use to teach is in this room. I'd rather not gather things into my car and have to take them back and forth, at the risk of forgetting something important. I have also experienced that students have a harder time learning at home due to the casual setting and always do best in a professional learning atmosphere."
3.) We Are Not Friends (... Yet)
Some clients/co-workers are happy to keep things professional and leave any kind of friendship out of the equation! I've noticed that a whole day of those kinds of interactions can create an emotionally stress-free workday. I can disconnect from work more easily, and I have more energy at the end of the day after only working with people on a professional level.
Then, there are those lovely people who believe in being friends with every single person they meet, whether it be a bagger at the grocery store or the person who happens to sit close to them in a public setting. We love these personalities for making the world a little brighter, but sometimes they can get a little too cozy, or in the worst case, can be using this persona to hide ill or manipulative intention.
I have a personal policy that I will not take friendly action with a client until after they have quit working with me. I make this very clear whenever it needs to be, and in a kind manner: "In the interest of remaining professional, I don't do coffee with clients until after we've ended our student-teacher relationship."
That said, there are grey areas—maybe you work with someone for an extended period and you know beyond a doubt you'll be friends for life regardless! That's just fine, and a beautiful thing when a relationship grows naturally on its own; I have a good amount of friends now who used to be or still are students of mine, but when they are in my classroom, I am the authority.
Make sure that in your work setting, your professional and personal relationships are divided. Be open with your new friend about how you prefer to keep it that way out of respect for your work and their friendship.
4) The Little Things Aren't So Little
Ah, micro-actions. The snowball effect that leads to a life of unease lies here, which is exactly what landed me a client-turned-stalker who was in my life for two and a half years. Ugh.
Did a client/co-worker say something that didn't sit well? Did they get too comfortable with you and use something of yours without asking, or are they conveniently forgetting/overlooking things you think are important or necessary for a smooth professional transaction?
Maybe they disrespect your time in a small way, forgetting appointments, always arriving late, or staying too long/taking up your time. It can be that they're not committing to their end of the work involved between the two of you. Maybe they disrespect your space by leaving a mess, or shame you in some regard, delivered in such slight words that you don't realize until later.
Perhaps it's even more subversive; every time you see them, they're depressed, and you have to mop up their emotions before you can get any work done. Maybe they have insecurities which are at the forefront of every interaction/conversation you have, effectively volunteering you as their personal cheerleader. Do they constantly ask you to accept less money or expect you to bend-over-backward for their benefit, asking consistently even after you've said no?
These are all micro-actions which have led to icky scenarios in my workplace, and some were years-long.
It's hard to say no to someone who always shows up with the same issues which then become commonplace. Every scenario is different, but there is a key to knowing what to do in each one:
As soon as you see the red flag, point it out verbally or take action. Not next time, not "if they do it again," immediately point out what makes you uncomfortable. Silence allows the behavior every single time.
It could be as simple as changing the subject back to work, choosing not to engage with the behavior. It also might be as necessary as saying "I've told you multiple times, please don't do that," depending on the relationship.
I notice it goes best if you shine the light on yourself, as if it's your issue. "I'm not comfortable talking about that/I prefer things a certain way, thanks for understanding."
Never apologize for creating a boundary, but always thank the person for seeing and respecting it as soon as you've created it. When they push it, push back with a kind reminder.
REMEMBER: You are not the bad guy for creating boundaries! Manipulators love to make you feel that way because your boundaries block them from having their way with you, and they hate that. Most people who are like this don't even realize they are this way. Have that at the forefront of your mind when dealing with a difficult person—they are not aware of where their actions come from or how their actions affect others, they just know they want something and need to get it somehow, whether it be a monetary gain or an emotional punching bag. Don't allow it.
5) Make a Policy Form
I write all my boundaries and expectations out in bullet form and make my clients sign it, along with other payment, cancellation, and procedural items I expect them to understand while they work with me. It has saved me a lot of grief.
If you are not working on a client basis, write yourself a policy form and sign it. That sounds extreme, but stick to your own policies and make sure you don't break contract to yourself!
6) Know Your Team
If things get out of hand, I have a group I can rely on who will always back me up. If a client pushes back, I can say, "Well, the music studio has these standards in place." I have teachers and admin here who will assist me in dealing with difficult relationships, and I have musicians and friends who will back me up outside of the studio setting.
Get your circle around you when you need support, it can make or break the outcome of these situations.
7) Have an Exit Procedure
Know how to cut off a relationship firmly, but professionally. Depending on the severity of the issue, I have two avenues I choose to end a business relationship:
- Make it about you, not them. It's always easiest to excuse yourself due to your own issues; once you point the finger at their behavior, you invite an argument or retaliation due to hurt feelings. This doesn't mean you have to lie or stretch the truth, either—just be honest about how you feel, while remaining sensitive to their feelings.
- List the unacceptable behavior in a clear, concise manner and send it as a document.Put another person in the loop who can defend you. Email is usually fine—you can CC someone who can back you up or watch the situation unfold as a witness if it has gotten out of hand. With the receipt of the letter, the client will be notified not to return and that they have run their course with you. The last time I did this, the man I was dealing with retaliated so badly that I had to get a restraining order against him, which I never imagined I'd do in my lifetime as a kids music teacher. Be aware that you also have those options if things get too out of hand, as they did with this particularly disturbing client.
Side Point: Women's Troubles
Lastly, I have to share that though I just had my first official stalking experience with a male client, I have had countless male students, parents, and bandmates who actively diminish my 25 years of music experience and 10 years of independent financial success due to my gender.
I have also been sexually objectified by male musicians (sadly obvious) and fathers in front of their kids in my teaching space, unfortunately, more times than I can recount. Once this behavior starts, I put a mirror up to it and repeat back everything they're saying while pointing out everything they're doing (the classic "my eyes are up here" never fails to get an embarrassed laugh). It gets them to shut up pretty quick, and sometimes they get mad, but that's their problem, not mine.
For the majority of my career, I took this as normal behavior and passed it over until our current rhetoric of female empowerment came to the forefront. I am so thankful for the changes in our social structure, but I want to be visible here for anyone experiencing similar issues:
I have had men render hundreds of dollars of services without paying for them, and then full-on yell at me for asking to collect payment in a kind manner. This has never happened with a female client. After their outburst, they disappear, never to return. This has happened at least five times in my career. I admit, allowed it to get out of control; I could have stopped it before it got too out of hand, but the awkward micro-actions associated with politeness blurred my boundaries. Just cut it off before it gets worse, even if you're at a loss.
I've had male bandmates, male parents, and male students diminish my musical knowledge, talking and teaching over me as if they know better, only to have me politely correct their supposed expertise. Again, I've never had a woman take these kinds of actions in my studio.
It's infuriating, and will only stop once you ask them to leave your space. You can't be in a creative or professional setting with that mindset, their ego will eventually kill everything. Apply to your scenario as you see fit.