Setting Boundaries is More Than Saying No

setting boundariesAny of this sound familiar? Your boss is on a different time zone than you and assumes, maybe expects, you will be available around theirs. You already have a list of ten high-priority tasks on your to-do list and your boss wants to add two more with the same priority and thinks this is reasonable. You are given a new project and aren’t given the resources to complete in the specified time. You just accepted a position with a new company and they want you to start right away, even though you really want a week of downtime between jobs. Can you simply say no to all these requests and move on? Yes, of course, but you should also expect something else will come up that is unreasonable in the future. Why? Because setting boundaries is more than simply saying no.

I have a client in Europe who, as soon as I sign onto email in the morning, thinks it’s acceptable to call or text me. I can be 5:30 AM and I’m heading out to walk the dog, but to them it means “Linda is available”. Or they will text me over the weekend and be surprised when I don’t respond. Recently they told me they had hired me to be surgeon, except I am mopping the floors, which they admitted they asked me to do yet were distraught more strategic initiatives hadn’t been completed. Another client asked me for ten hours of my time a week and was surprised when my fee for five hours a week wasn’t simply half of the ten-hour fee. Then there was the client who hired me to do an all-day workshop, signed the contract, and not only changed the date four times but thought it was reasonable to request I do the workshop over two days instead of one. A colleague shared with me that one of her clients asked her to travel to them but was unwilling to pay a second night in a hotel, even though their work ended at 5 PM and with flight arrangements she wasn’t getting home until 2 AM.

I’m sure if I surveyed 100 people I would get 100 different examples of where a boundary was crossed, where a boss/client/colleague had an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation, and didn’t see the problem. How does this happen? Are there a gazillion difficult people out there that think what they want is more important than what you want? News flash — the answer is YES! However, the problem is as much your/my fault as the other person.

Going back to the examples I listed above. The first catch is that we don’t address the problem when it first occurs. We think, ‘oh, this is a one-time thing’ or ‘the situation is critical and can’t wait’ or ‘I understand their financial situation’ or whatever excuse you make up to justify why you don’t address the problem. Like all problems they do not go away, they get bigger and hairier over time and more difficult to address the longer the problem goes on. Then, when we are exasperated, we tell them but with lots of emotion and energy around what we say and the other person doesn’t hear your concerns.

What’s the solution? Is simply saying no enough to set boundaries and proper expectations? Maybe, but let’s take a look at this situation.

  1. Saying no may not mean no. Even if you say no the other person may assume it only relates to the specific situation (eg., don’t call or text me at 5:30 AM just because I responded to an email) and not connect the dots to other similar situations. So, you will have to say no often and consistently. In fact, you’ll have to say no all the time.
  2. When dealing with self-focused people, being rational doesn’t work. You can’t talk to people about being reasonable and rational when they are self-focused, putting their needs before your needs. They may not be bad people, it’s just that they have always surrounded themselves with people who cater to their needs.
  3. Understand what boundaries mean to you. The boundary you need to establish may not be a no response. It may mean you have to identify what is/isn’t acceptable to you. For example, maybe your boss keeps piling on work and everything is a priority and at the same level. You already have 10 priorities to complete this month and they want to add two more. What’s the boundary you want to set? Is it that you want your boss to understand they cannot keep piling on new projects without removing something? Or is it that you are willing to work whatever hours are needed this month to do these twelve projects and this can’t happen again? Or something else? Unless you know what boundary you want to establish, you can’t communicate that to anyone else.
  4. Boundaries tend to be circumstantial. Sometimes you want to establish a boundary because something happened. For example: ;a new project or client came forward and your boss has requested you cancel your vacation. You might never think of this until it comes up so how do you establish a boundary for this specific situation, and others in the future?
  5. Are your boundaries hard and fast or flexible? I had a hard and fast boundary around not working on weekends. The sky could fall down and I wasn’t working. Until I had a client who took huge amounts of my time and in order to complete work for Incedo I had to work on the weekends. So the boundary applied until I chose to change it. Fine for me since it was my choice, but after working three Saturdays I was cranky and decided to go back to my original boundary.

The point is that simply saying no does not communicate anything to someone else. It simply says no I won’t this time, or in this situation, but doesn’t explain what boundary they crossed. If you want others to respect your boundaries be clear about what they are and communicate them to others. They don’t have to like it. The more you share about your boundaries, the more they can connect the dots for other situations.

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