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Setting Appropriate Boundaries

Some ideas on how to set limits, so others recognize and change inappropriate or disrespectful behavior.

This is the sixth article in a series on collaboration and conflict resolution. Read the introduction to the entire series.

While it is important to encourage others to express themselves, it is also important to recognize when behavior is no longer on the spectrum that is respectful and constructive. It is not easy to face negative behavior directly and let the person know that what he is doing or saying is not OK. Read these ideas to develop your game plan. No matter what approach you take, remember to always offer the other person the same basic respect that you want in return.

  • Identify the tactic to yourself. When you can give the difficulty a label, 'stone wall', 'deception,' 'personal attack,' or another name, this helps sharpen your focus and response.
  • Own your perception. If someone is attempting to bully, dominate, or manipulate to ‘win’, call out what you see so the behavior can be discussed.
    Example: The way I hear your statement is as a new demand just when we seemed to be reaching an agreement. Is that what you intend?
  • Send a clear 'I-message'. Avoid judgment or blame that will likely trigger defensiveness or a counter-attack.  An ‘I-message’ emphasizes your ownership of the concern and puts the issue on the table to address. It can be paired with a firm request.
    Example: I become angry when you withhold key information because it offends my sense of fairness. I want the survey results by the end of the workday.
  • State the issue as a joint problem to be solved. Then negotiate.
    Example: Before the planning committee can even consider your proposal, we need to clarify the scope and cost elements of these repairs.
  • Be a broken record. Clearly and firmly (without raising your voice, blaming, or judging) repeat your point until you receive an appropriate response.
    Example: This is completely unacceptable and needs to be corrected now. (They react defensively, rationalize, attack, offer excuses, etc.)  This is completely unacceptable and needs to be corrected now.
Lack of boundaries invites lack of respect
  • Fogging. This is a name given to a simple technique from the early days of assertiveness training. Find something in their last communication that you can ‘agree’ with (even if most of what they said is not helpful). State your 'agreement' and then shift the focus to what you want to deal with.
    Example: You may be right about a mistake being made, and it still leaves us needing a new approach to the main problem. What can we do in the next week to improve the situation?
  • Don’t take the ‘bait’. Ignore the tactic and demonstrate that it has no effect on you. This can be particularly useful with personal attacks designed to get to you and throw you off.
  • Draw a clear line and adopt ground rules.
    Example: That is the second time you have used profanity toward us. I want to work with you AND I am unwilling to be treated with disrespect. I will only continue when there is a clear agreement that everyone in the room receives the same, simple respect.