Why you don’t like asking for payment – it’s all in the mind!

I’ve always been fascinated by psychology but I’m no expert. So I asked psychology blogger Jessica Bloomfield-Harris to write a guest blog all about why we don’t like asking for payment. It makes for some very interesting reading!


Many of us hate asking for payments from our clients despite needing the payments to keep our business going. Why are we often complacent when it comes to getting paid? This blog investigates some evolutionary and cognitive psychology answers.


When it comes to evolution all of our behaviour is driven by one of two needs survival (Natural Selection) or reproduction (Sexual Selection). Whilst we may like to think we have evolved significantly from the earliest humans, we haven’t evolved much at all and many of our behaviours are still driven by these needs. With the question in mind ‘Why don’t we like asking for payment?’ two survival-based explanations can provide some insight.

Evolution – Stress Response

When we face a stressor (something that causes stress, i.e. asking for payment) we have four behavioural options which all aim to increase our chances of survival.

  • Fight (Cannon, 1932): If we’re feeling confident that we will be successful in gaining payment we can challenge the client by asking for prompt payment
  • Flight (Cannon, 1932): If we don’t think we will be successful we may decide to write off the payment
  • Freeze (Gray, 1988): If we’re unsure whether we will be successful we may choose to procrastinate and dissociate from the situation, hoping that the matter will resolve itself
  • Tend & Befriend (Taylor et al. 2000): If we want to try to calm the situation and build a relationship with the client we may increase our communication with the client but not directly ask for the payment. Women are less likely to take risks (Mather) such as fight or flight and so have evolved to use this strategy more.

Which of these do you tend to do?
What factors affect your choice in behaviour?
Which would you use for a long-standing client and a new client?

Evolution – Embarrassment

Embarrassment is a complicated self-conscious emotion in response to real or imagined personal or social mistakes. It often forms lasting long-term memories and is related to guilt, shame and self-esteem, this suggests that it is a very powerful emotion which is there to stop us making the same mistakes again.

In our ancestor’s past showing embarrassment would have helped to increase chances of survival and reproductive success because research shows that we are perceived as;

  • more likeable
  • committed (Goffman)
  • a good person (Keltner)
  • pro-social and trustworthy (Feinberg et al.)

“People underestimate how much they allow the threat of embarrassment to govern their own future choices” Dr Christine Harris

Unfortunately, embarrassment causes us to take huge risks (Harris) as a consequence we may not ask for payment. We may ignore the fact we haven’t been paid or won’t get paid because we feel we should build a long-term relationship with the client. We may hope that in response to our sign of commitment they will pay. Also, we are more likely to feel embarrassed in our own social group, so if a client is a referral or friend these feelings will intensify.

Have you had a negative experience when asking a client for payment? Did this lead to embarrassment? We often judge the situation more critically than others (Savitsky, 2001) so try reframing the situation to give you confidence in asking clients in the future.

Embarrassment is a submissive behaviour which can lead to internal conflict, conflict avoidance and communication submissiveness.

Internal Conflict

Cognitive Dissonance Theory can explain why we might feel embarrassed asking for payment. Festinger (1957) proposed the theory that we have an inner drive to keep our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in harmony. If they are not in harmony, we feel extremely uncomfortable, this is called dissonance. As a result, we try to rectify either our belief and attitude or behaviour to stop the unpleasant feeling.

We might feel dissonance when we ask for payment if our business is there to help people and our beliefs and attitudes are all driven by this purpose. By asking for payment we may feel like we are presenting a money driven purpose instead. Consequently, we may feel uncomfortable and change our behaviour to not ask for payment.

Conflict Avoidance

As well as disliking internal conflict our ancestors have given us a dislike for conflict within our social groups too. As mentioned above you may feel that asking for payment could lead to a ‘fight’ and create conflict. It is becoming increasingly common for us to ‘freeze’ and not do anything (Anderson, 2003; Dentsu Reports, 1999). Psychologically we have a preference for no change and no action.

“When there may be risks to maintaining the status quo but the prospects for discovering better alternatives appears grim” Janis & Mann (1977)

Janis & Mann (1977) suggest we justify keeping the status quo by:

  • being evasive, seeking distractions and ignoring the payment
  • passing the buck to another colleague
  • bolstering ourselves with reasons why we shouldn’t ask for payment

Have you tried any of these?

Further research also shows that if we’ve had a negative experience (i.e. asking for payment but being met with conflict and no payment) 77% of people were more likely to maintain the status quo i.e. not ask for payment (Riis & Schwarz, 2000). The same researchers have also found that we experience less regret by maintaining the situation, therefore it’s not surprising this is a popular choice.

These are some tips to help make conflict constructive (Cohen):

  • Don’t hide your true feelings
  • Be proactive and don’t procrastinate
  • Try not to predict the client’s response
  • State how you feel and what you think, without imposing thoughts and feelings on the client (i.e. blaming or attacking them)


Transactional Analysis is a communication theory by Eric Berne which states that we develop three different ‘voices’.

  • Parent: This voice can best be described as what we are taught by significant people in the first 5 years of our life.
  • Child: This voice represents our emotions in response to events in the first 5 years of our lives and is often described as how we felt.
  • Adult: This voice is our learned voice we have created by understanding cause and effect. It validates information from the parent and child.

When there is conflict in communication Berne argues there is a crossed transaction. For example, by asking for payment you may communicate in your Child voice and be talking to the client who is using their Parent voice. The crossed transaction gives power and dominance to the client and leaves the business owner feeling powerless and submissive. Therefore, the request for payment is unlikely to be successful.

The best way to communicate it Adult to Adult. As mentioned above try to communicate using ‘I’, avoid blaming or criticising the client and avoid downplaying wanting to be paid. It is a valid request. Try making the phone call when you are feeling calm and in control. If you’re feeling angry you may use your Parent voice. If you are feeling nervous you will slip into the Child voice.

Has this struck a chord with you?

There are lots of psychological reasons why we don’t like asking for payment. Evolution can provide us with sound arguments as to why we may avoid conflict in order to build relationships and prevent conflict. There are also several biases which stop us from asking for payment such as our desire for status quo and to avoid conflict at all costs.
Which of these explanations do you think best applies to you?

What three things will you do differently next time you need to ask for or chase payment?

Confident Cashflow are here to support you and your business if you are chasing payments. Or if you’ve just started why not have clear terms and conditions written by Nicki to help avoid conflict. Why not get in touch.

Jessica Bloomfield, Freelance Psychology Writer
See www.bloomfieldharris.com for employee wellbeing business


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