Professional Ghosting: What is it, and how can you manage it when you're self-employed?
Updated: Nov 15
You might well have heard of ghosting when it comes to dating. You're getting on famously, might have even had a date (or, post-lockdown, a zoom call or What's App video 'date'). There's chat, there's romance in the air. This could be... something.
Then - silence. They disappear. You know they're still alive, thanks to their Instagram, Twitter or Tik Tok, and you can see their 'last seen' time on What's App. They're lurking, in the shadows - like a ghost.
This can happen all too often in business, too.
I used to think professional ghosting was about being ignored, from the off. For example, I sent out some pitches last week that haven't had replies. No, that's not ghosting. (That's ignoring!)
Ghosting would be, for example, like the potential client who I had a Zoom meeting with, and sent updated content ideas and plans to, three weeks ago, and haven't heard a peep from since.
Ghosting would be an editor (this hasn't happened recently!) who likes a pitch, and says they'll raise it with their editor, and asks for more info then... nada.
The problem with professional ghosting when you're freelance or self-employed is that it affects the balance of everything you do. If you're waiting for someone to come back to you about a fixed-term contract, you might not put yourself forward for other contracts, or book in work with other clients. Waiting on a pitch that's in limbo means the pitch can't go elsewhere. It puts you, and your work, in a waiting room of sorts. You can also worry that pushing back when someone ghosts you - or they get in touch after a period of ghosting - could damage your reputation, your sales or your business plans.
(As a note on pitching, if something is time-sensitive, or pegged to a current news story, I will say in the pitch that I haven't sent it elsewhere, or send to more than one editor at a time and make it clear I've done so).
There are obvious ways, as with dating, that we can react to professional ghosting. We can bother them until they reply, or we can hunt them down, so to speak, on other channels. Not replying to email? Send an insta DM! Not showing up there? Why not tweet them...?
We can spend - no, waste - time moaning and ruminating over why they might not have replied or what's made them go silent. Perhaps there's a difficult situation at work? Perhaps they've been ill.... perhaps, sadly, they're ghosting you. If the 'Oh, they might be super busy' feeling comes to mind, which it often does for me, remind yourself that they a) weren't too busy for that initial call and b) YOU could also be busy elsewhere!
That can all feel quite... pushy. So, what else can we do?
Personally, I know that I have battled the 'feels' of professional ghosting for many years. I am often angry or upset when something's unfair, or feels unfair, and ghosting falls very firmly into that category. It's RUDE. Well, I think so. But it's always going to be a thing, so to try and battle it is futile.
Instead, here's what you can try:
1: Send a 'Thank you, next' email
This sounds harsh, but the idea is you walk away. You make it clear that your pitch, your services and so on, are no longer available to them. They might come back and say 'Oh no, but we want it!'. That's when you have to be strong and say that sorry, you have taken your business elsewhere.
The pros are that you are in control and can get on with other things. The cons, of course, are that it might burn a bridge. But, if they're a ghoster, what bridge are you burning? The bridge they control access to? Hmmm.
2. Ask upfront what their intentions are
This feels very 'datey', like asking if someone thinks they're keen on marriage on a first date. But asking questions up front can eliminate the level to which you can be ghosted.
For example, ask when they are planning to make a decision about the contract. Or, say that you would need to know by a certain date because of other commitments or pending projects. Ask them who else they are speaking to, and when. Say, in the call, that you will follow up with them on a certain date: "I'll be in touch by EOP Friday for an update, is that OK for you?"Or, even "Will you be able to update me in one week, so I can be clear with other clients and projects?"
That feels formal, but it's essentially saying 'Hey, don't mess me around, please."
You're showing that you don't take kindly to wishy-washy 'we'll get back to you' call endings.
I have also learned to be more guarded with my availability. If someone asks 'when could you start?', you can always bat that back to them with 'I'm flexible, but I would need time to tie up current projects. When are you expecting to make a decision about the contract?'
3. Be prepared to give up entirely
Yes, that's a key part of this. To say 'They're ghosting me, and I need to walk away'. Even though, like with that cutie you got on so well with, you wonder if they might just call, you need to say you're not available. And that might be by not contacting them. I often follow brands or businesses I connect with for contracts, and if they ghost me, I unfollow! It feels simultaneously petulant and triumphant!
The key here is that you are no longer giving air time, your time, or your business's precious time to the 'maybe' that hangs in the air. You're saying 'I'm off to do something else'. Like write a blog post instead of chasing a potential new client who hasn't been in touch for three weeks!
Is professional ghosting holding you back in your freelance or self-employed career? Contact me to enquire about how coaching can help with this and many other challenges.