Set Boundaries, Foil Boundary Predators, and Say No
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. They are the team leader who assigns you more work than your colleagues.
Boundary predators aren’t just at work. They also include the crafty 4-year-old who says, “But Daddy said I could have another cookie!” They are the 17-year-old who commits to driving three friends to the movies without first asking your permission to borrow the car. They are 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:
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?”
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:
To up the ante a little, mention others who are with you:
We’re all familiar with “scope creep”—when you’re asked to do more than you signed up for. As any parent of a 2-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:
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:
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:
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:
Don’t Offer a Parade of “Becauses” 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:
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:
With any interruption in your boundary agreement, you will need to reset the agreement to move forward:
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.
Adapted from “Set Better Boundaries,” on hbr.org, January 13, 2021 (product #H063ME).