Communication People skills

Letting Others Know Your Boundaries

Boundaries are about you. Letting others know your boundaries should be done as soon as possible, preferably straightaway after the unacceptable behaviour. In other words, you usually do not have time to prepare yourself; something happens and you need to react without delay.

The framework is as follows:

  • Recognising that a boundary has been crossed
  • Mentioning the unacceptable behaviour
  • Making known the consequences if repeated
  • Coming to an understanding
  • Closing the conversation

So the first step is recognition. To be able to recognise a boundary, you will first need to acknowledge it; that is, you will need to know where your boundaries lie. This requires some self-knowledge and self-reflection: Who are you? What is acceptable to you and what isn’t? Once you recognise that a boundary has been crossed, you will need to act. It is preferable to have a one-on-one, but often that isn’t possible. The idea is, however, to let the other lose as little face as possible. By being respectful you can reduce this loss of face and minimise the chance of repetition. Just as with bad news, it is fatal to try to soften the blow or beat around the bush. By being clear and concrete you are also being transparent. So you will need to be assertive and, whenever possible, address the issue straightaway, or as soon as possible after the boundary has been crossed.

Be concrete about what exactly crosses the boundary

The first step is to mention the unacceptable behaviour, which is best done in the active I-form: ‘I notice that you … (fill in the behaviour)’. This is less likely to elicit a defensive reaction, something you are more likely to get when you say: ‘You (always) do …’. It is also a matter of making the behaviour a point of discussion, not the person. The behaviour also needs to be mentioned as specifically and concretely as possible. What exactly makes the behaviour inappropriate? Telling someone that you notice they are being disrespectful is too vague. What makes their behaviour disrespectful? That is what needs to be addressed.

What certainly may not be added are the bygones. So definitely not: ‘You always do that’, ‘This has been bothering me for quite a while now’, or running by all the previous occasions when this happened. Also, when you try to add ammunition, for example with: ‘It also bothers other people’, this will probably weaken the impact of your message. In other words, stick to the current incident and only the current incident.

If there isn’t any consequence, why would the other need to take you into account?

The next step is to mention what the consequences will be if the boundary is crossed again in the future. After all, if there isn’t any consequence, why would the other need to take you into account? The trick is that the consequence must be meaningful to the other. Grounding a teenager nowadays has less impact than confiscating their smartphone for a specific timeframe. The consequences will also need to be stated in concrete terms. And don’t forget, they should be appropriate: Not too great, not too small, and certainly not punishing the person. Telling a child: ‘or else I won’t like you anymore’ punishes the person, not the behaviour, and simply isn’t okay.

Also, the consequence needn’t be justified. When you try to enforce your boundaries thanks to your position, the company policy or its procedures, you are no longer busy with your boundaries, as boundaries are personal. And the other is less likely to understand that the boundary crossed was yours, and therefore tends to pay less attention to it.

After giving the consequence, it is best to move quite quickly to coming to an understanding – usually nothing more than a single sentence like: ‘Can we agree that it won’t happen again?’ Or far better to use a positively formulated message: ‘Can we agree that in the future you do … in this kind of situation?’ And with that, the conversation can be closed off quite rapidly, perhaps even with something like: ‘Okay. What were we busy with?’ In brief, once the behaviour has been addressed and the other is in the know about what’s okay and what isn’t, then it is counterproductive to pout for a couple of hours. The subtext reads: ‘Let’s not dwell on this, and move forward’.

A boundary is a boundary

The pitfalls are to lapse into a lecture and to get into a discussion. A boundary is a boundary and doesn’t need to be moralised, doesn’t need to be explained, and isn’t open for negotiation. When the other does try to engage in a discussion, you merely need to repeat the boundary which has been crossed and that this is unacceptable to you.

The last pitfall is to ask for a reaction, explanation or the reasons for the behaviour, or to discuss the other’s emotions after the fact. This way you are questioning your own credibility. You’re asking the other to defend their behaviour. If there were justifiable grounds (when it’s about a boundary this is seldom the case), they would have brought these in anyway. Even then the question remains whether the means (inexcusable behaviour) justifies the ends (crossing your boundaries).

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.