How to manage and overcome disputes as a freelancer

Dispute Resolution guide: How to manage and overcome disputes as a freelancer

Reading Time: 8 minutes

If you have been a freelancer for even a day or two, you would know that disputes are unavoidable. They happen over a variety of reasons — your client is unhappy with the quality of the final product, too many revision requests, delay in invoicing, and many more.

As a freelancer, how do you manage these kinds of situations? An impromptu approach may not always be enough. Remember, everything from your reputation, financial stability to mental peace is at stake. Never take it lightly and be prepared.

We will help you understand the major causes of disputes between clients and freelancers and how to manage them effectively.

Causes of disputes

In a freelancer-client relationship, disputes happen all the time. The first step to effective dispute resolution is to understand what caused it.

Dispute resolution - causes of disputes

1. Vague communication

Imagine you are a freelance designer, the client you are working for wants you to design images for a blog post and send it to them by ‘next week’. The problem here is that ‘next week’ is not very specific.

It leads to misunderstanding, confusion, and delay. You may think you’ve got time till next Friday, while the client might want it on Wednesday. Eventually, it leads to disputes because both parties end up thinking they are right.

Now, this ambiguity arises down to a variety of reasons:

dispute resolution - reasons for ambiguity in communication

2. Lack of trust between both sides

For a good working relationship between two parties, trust is super-critical. When there’s a lack of trust, insecurity creeps in, honesty goes out of the window, communications become minimal, and you will feel threatened. That’s when disputes occur. Lack of trust can do this to any relationship, from marital ones to freelancer-client.

Dispute resolution - lack of trust

3. Scope mismatch

If you have been in freelancing for a while, you most certainly would have worked with clients who are scope creeps. For those who don’t know, they are the ones who keep extending the scope of the project to what was agreed initially.

Scope creep


Some clients believe that since you are contracted to them, they can give as much work as they want. For instance, if you are on hourly wages, they will dump irrelevant tasks on you so they can get their money’s worth. In other cases where you are paid for the project or milestone, they might revise the benchmark or ask for more revisions than agreed, and more. In the end, you will end up doing a lot more than what was mentioned in the job description.

When there is a mismatch in expectations between both parties, there is a huge chance for it to end up in disputes.

4. Delay in getting paid

Nobody likes to request for money, especially when you have earned it. In an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to worry about the client transferring your remuneration to your account. Sadly, this is not often the case with freelancers.

How often do freelancers get paid late


Often, you have to sit down with the client and have a long discussion with them to settle the payment, despite agreeing to it at the time of signing of the contract.

The clients often sight certain loopholes or ask for postponements to delay the payment. For full-time freelancers, every pay cheque is critical. Slight delays can upset the balance of their lives. That’s why you often see freelancers embroiled in disputes with clients regarding billing and invoicing.

How to manage disputes with clients?

The best way to manage disputes is to stay prepared for them, always. It will help you avoid conflicts as well as manage them effectively. The more you learn about the possible causes of disputes, the easier it will be to brace yourself or prevent them before boiling over.

The key to being a successful freelancer, you will have to wade through disputes and conflicts without getting hurt. Read on to learn how you:

How to manage disputes with clients

1. Learn to listen actively

When you are interacting with a client, and you are entirely focused on what they are saying, that’s what’s called active listening. It means the client has your full concentration and they know they have it. This makes them feel comfortable and talk to you openly.

You will be able to understand both the implicit as well as the explicit meaning of what they are saying. Moreover, active listening skills will help identify the client’s position and what their expectations are, avoiding confusion.

How to listen actively

2. Learn to stay composed in stressful situations

Let’s face it, any kind of disputes make us feel stressed. That’s how our brain is programmed to be. When confronted, our brains respond with stress. It is an indication that you are under attack or about to be attacked.

At this point, your brain starts to prime your body for ‘fight or flight’ by releasing adrenaline and cortisol hormones. They make humans more impulsive and quick to react. While it may be handy when there is a threat of physical harm, it doesn’t help in a workplace setting.

So, next time when your client gets angry at you, keep your mind calm. This way your brain won’t go into the ‘fight or flight’ mode. You will be able to see past their anger and make sense of why they are angry.

Here are a few ways to train your mind to be stress-free:

  • Always see the bigger picture. Ask yourself whether the confrontation will have an effect on your freelancing career in the long run.
  • Step away, and analyze the situation rationally. Ask yourself if the client’s rant has any substance to it.
  • Take a couple of minutes, inhale deeply and loosen up your body. Imagine you are breathing away the stress with every exhale.
  • Add patience building exercises to your daily routine. This will help you regulate your responses to confrontations

3. Be sure to communicate clearly

When you communicate lucidly and straightforwardly, people are more likely to understand you — it is as simple as that. And, you are more likely to get the right answer from the client, and there will be less chance of a mismatch in expectations.

You don’t need to make any drastic changes to communicate clearly. All you have to do is to pay a little extra attention to what you write and say, here’s how:

  • For starters, your project proposals must provide essential information such as objectives, plan of action, timeline, and so on. It shows that you are reliable and serious about work.
  • Before you start working, discuss and finalise the communication channels you are planning to use and for what exactly. Say, email for official correspondence, Zoom (a video conferencing tool) for daily check-ins, Google Drive for sharing files, and so on.
  • Always encourage the client to give feedback, be it when you send your project proposal or when you submit the final version of the mobile app you were working on. It will help you understand their perspective clearly and avoid further revisions.
  • Similarly, be sure to mention the possible next steps that clients can take wherever required. You won’t leave them hanging. They will know exactly what to do next, which makes it easier for everyone.
  • Keep a close eye on your verbal communications with clients. Always review your message before sending it, helps you spot errors and ambiguities. Have a checklist in place with items like — grammar mistakes, short and to the point sentences, jargon and buzzword free, whether the emojis and gifs (if any) make sense, if the formatting is right, and finally, read it aloud.
  • Be explicit in your communications, whether it is verbal or spoken. The focus should be on specificity, don’t use estimates or ranges unless there are no alternatives. Whether it is your target for the month or the deadline, being specific makes it easier to avoid disputes.

4. Review the contract carefully

It is super-critical that you review the contract thoroughly before signing it. If it is not satisfactory, you should always try to negotiate for a more favourable contract. This way you are reducing chances for disputes in future.

A few things to keep in mind while negotiating and reviewing your contract:

  • Iron out the terms and conditions relevant to the kind of contract you are entering — payment milestones, minimum hours per week, type of tasks that can be assigned to you, and more.
  • Add a clause to the contract saying ‘all payments are non-refundable and required even if the client does not use final output’.
  • Review the deliverables; make sure they are the same as agreed earlier. Get the deliverables to be as specific as possible; removes any room for confusion.
  • Bring it to the notice of the client if they have deviated from the promises they made during the interview. Verbal agreements are not always legally binding, so it is critical that the contract reflects the same.
  • Be sure to make a copy of all the email correspondence that you have with clients. Often, once you start working, there may be changes in terms of scope, budget, or time frames related to the project. So, in case a dispute arises later, you can always point the client to the document.
  • Get the client to pay a deposit upfront.
  • Let the client know if you want them to buy licenses of particular software.

5. Be aware of the redressal options available

Unlike full-time employees, freelancers can’t approach an HR for dispute resolution, because they work independently. However, they can always contact the freelancing website that is facilitating the project for mediation. Most freelancing marketplaces have a dedicated section in their FAQs detailing how they can seek redressal.

So, every time you sign up for a freelancing website, spend some time to read up on your rights. You will be able to understand the kind of disputes for which the site will step in to mediate and how do they go about it.

Besides that, you should be aware of the rights you have as a self-employed person in your country. For instance, if you are in the USA, several state laws exist to protect your rights. A significant one is the Freelance Isn’t Free Act that protects freelancers from harassment or discrimination. If you are from India, here is a list of legal rights and precautions that you should be aware of.

Final thoughts

When it comes to dispute resolution, it would be best if you are proactive. Always be prepared for disputes, that’s how you will be able to prevent or manage it effectively. If you do the right thing at the right time, you can significantly lower the chances of disputes getting blown out. You will be able to settle matters quickly and move on. And that helps when you are trying to retain clients.

Of course, there might be times when you are unable to settle a dispute cordially. In such cases, you may have to opt for legal action. So, it is always handy to have a lawyer on speed dial. Moreover, you can get them to vet contracts before you sign them — will help you negotiate for better terms.


Sucheth is a Content Marketer at TapChief. He is a marketer by day and an avid reader by night.