Set Better Boundaries

by Priscilla Claman

Boundary predators are easy to find at work. They include the boss who asks you to work the weekend you have a family wedding or the client who tacks on two more presentations to the senior team than you agreed to, or the team leader who assigns you more work than your colleagues.

Boundary predators aren’t just at work. They also include the crafty four-year-old who says, “But Daddy said I could have another cookie!” Or the 17 year old who commits to driving three friends to the movies without first asking your permission to borrow the car. Or the beloved partner who leaves the dishwasher for you to unload even though you made a deal to take turns and you did it yesterday.

Boundary predators rely on their power and authority — and your passivity — to get what they want. It’s up to you to push back by understanding how to create boundaries and maintain them. Personal boundaries are difficult to define and hard to maintain in all spheres of our lives. Unlike laws or national boundaries, personal boundaries don’t exist on their own; you have to will them into existence through conversation, especially if you aren’t in a position of power. However, all kinds of people conduct these difficult conversations every day with customers, clients, and kids, clarifying the work to be done and both drawing and holding the line. The following approaches will make it easier for you to conduct persuasive conversations that set and maintain boundaries:

Have an Agreement Up Front
When everyone consents to terms ahead of time, everyone knows what the objectives are and what to expect, and there is usually less potential for opposition. For example:

  • “I have to leave this meeting at 11:30, but I’ll check in this afternoon.”
  • “Yes, you can take the car, but you will have to be back by 10:30 so I can take your sister to practice.”
  • “Let’s say that you can always have two cookies, but only two cookies, for dessert.”

Establishing a clear boundary gives you a defense against withering in an endless meeting or listening to continuous nagging for more dessert. Then, you can just remind the other party of the agreement and be firm. “Only two cookies for dessert, remember?”

Mention Your Credentials
Setting boundaries, no matter how casual, requires some authority. Briefly referring to the expertise you bring to the table gives you additional power in boundary negotiations. Here’s what that sounds like:

  • “I’ve worked with at least 20 CEOs in similar situations, and I know I can help you.”
  • “Yes, I’ve worked with this software on several other projects, and I know I can make a contribution to the team. But we’ll have to figure out how to reassign my current work.”
  • “As your father, I am responsible for your safety, and I don’t think that’s a safe thing to do.”

To up the ante a little, mention others who are with you:

  • “You’ve reached the right department to resolve your problem. We have a reputation for being the best, so if you follow my instructions, I’ll have you back online in a jiffy.”
  • “Parents choose their kids’ TV programs, and your dad and I agree that’s not a program you should watch.”

Expect Your Boundaries to Be Challenged
We’re all familiar with “scope creep”— when you’re asked to do more than you signed up for. As any parent of a two-year-old knows, setting a boundary is almost an invitation to test it. So, don’t get angry. Think about it and make a choice. Do I want to make this an exception or do I want to stick with the agreement?

There are times when you can gain something from conceding, but you’ll need to reset the boundary bargain as a part of the same conversation. For example:

  • “I’m happy to do it again for you, this time. How about lending me two people on your staff while I do it? I’ll teach them all I know, and then you’ll have the resources in house.”
  • “Yes, you can have the car all day Saturday if you drive your sister and her friends to practice. The following Saturday, though, I’m going to need it.”

Ask Questions
Ask loads of clarifying questions before committing, especially when you aren’t clear on the right approach. The answers will help you decide what to do when your boundaries are challenged. Keep your questions open-ended, so you’ll be able to gather more information without being perceived as negative:

  • “Let’s talk a little more about your project. You said it had strategic importance. How is that? Do you have some ideas for the outcomes you want? Let’s come up with some options for meeting your team’s strategic goals for this fiscal year.”
  • “What can you tell me about the people we’re creating this how-to-interview program for? Are they experienced interviewers? What concerns do you have about their ability to select the right person for the job?”
  • “That is an interesting new bike you want us to buy for you. What makes it different from the bike you have now? What do you plan to do with your old bike?”

Try Not to Use the Word “No”
Sooner or later you’re going to have to use the word “no,” if only to stop your kid from running into the street. But don’t be afraid to disagree, even with powerful people. You can have a persuasive conversation that sets boundaries without starting a world war. The key is to not say no directly. This skill is useful for setting boundaries, while maintaining the relationship:

  • “My team and I would be very happy to work on your important project, but we’re unable to start for six months.”
  • “I’m sorry I just won’t be able to make that Friday deadline. Let’s talk about what we can do now.”

When you say no indirectly, offering alternatives maintains the relationship and eases the negative blow. Doing this works in the office and in other realms of your life, too:

  • “I can scale back what I give you and do it by Friday, or I can complete it and give it to you a week later.”
  • “I’m very excited about taking this job, and I understand you want me to start right away, but I have a two-week vacation planned with my family. Would you like me to start after I take my vacation or take the vacation after I start?”
  • “It’s just not possible for us to spend that amount of money on a new bike this summer. However, I’m happy to brainstorm with you how you could earn some money and sell your old one. Then we might be able to contribute something to the cause.”

Alternatives give the people you are saying no to a greater sense of control. You’re not denying them everything, and you’re sending a strong message that you still want to work with them.

Don’t Offer a Parade of Reasons When You Say No
Overexplaining will not help you agree to a boundary. Too much information can lead to too much discussion. And it erodes your position:

  • Don’t say, “I can’t work next Saturday because I’m going to my grandson’s first birthday party,” unless you know your boss is particularly sensitive to grandmothers. The boss might argue, “But he’ll have a birthday next year,” or “You’ll be home by 6 p.m. Have the party then.” Now you are into an argument that’s hard to win. Say instead, “I’m sorry. I’ve an important family obligation I just can’t change.” And stick to it.
  • Don’t say you can’t come to a party because you don’t have a babysitter, because then the host could offer to let your children come, too. Then you’d be forced to say, “But that wouldn’t work because . . . ” Instead, say, “I wish we could, but we just can’t,” and leave it like that.

After a Crisis, Reset the Agreement
Emergencies occur. You will drop everything to take your daughter to the emergency room when she breaks her leg. You will work more hours than is reasonable to make sure that product gets out the door on time. But you need to restart your agreement when the emergency is over. If you had a strong boundary agreement in the first place, it will be much easier to reestablish it. If you can, allude to the agreement while you are responding to the emergency, and always give the important news in the first sentence:

  • “I’m not going to make the presentation this afternoon. I’m on my way to the emergency room with my daughter. When she is stabilized, I’ll call and see what I can do to reschedule.”
  • “No problem. I’ll take over while you go to that important conference in Chicago, but when you get back, let’s return to our regular plan for day-care drop-off and pickup.”

With any interruption in your boundary agreement, you will need to reset the agreement to move forward:

  • “Yes, I’ll drop everything and fly to meet with Big Important Client to resolve their problems with our technology, but let’s agree that I’ll to go back to managing my current team with my current responsibilities when I get back next month.”
  • “Yes, while you are staying at Grandma’s you can watch the TV much longer. But Grandma has her rules at her house, and we have our rules at our house.”

Strangely enough, even when you are in charge, using your authority doesn’t always help you set boundaries, as anyone who has toilet trained a toddler will tell you. The harder you push, the more resistance you create. Being persuasive, not pushy, will help you set boundaries in a collaborative way. And the more you conduct conversations to clearly set — and enforce — boundaries, the more they will be respected.

Article Link: Set Better Boundaries