DR. JAN NEWMAN
What do compassionate boundaries sound like?
A boundary can sound like many things.
For the first example, I’ve included a more detailed version that you would likely share with a person “offline” – meaning not in the moment when the behavior is occurring, but when you’re heading it off at the pass.
The pros of this strategy are that you’re choosing when and how this conversation takes place. Having that pregame plan helps provide some comfort and reduce the novelty of the situation. If you practice it out loud or with a coach or therapist, even better.
The cons, according to most of my clients, is that you’re going to talk to the other person in a way that might feel awkward. Mostly because it’s a new way. So the question is would you be willing to feel awkward suckiness to do something about what’s happening? If it’s a complicated request with a person you’re very close to like your partner, you can do better by writing it down and actually asking them to hold their response and to read it to them. This saves your working memory and allows you to say what you intended, not being distracted by dodging bullets.
With any of these exercises, please remember that (and you’re brain is going to want to do this so hard) you can’t control what other people think, feel, or do. Ever.
There is no script, strategy, or technique that will solve that problem or work for every situation. (Also, I want to give some serious Jedi hugs here – you also can’t 100% stop your brain from trying to do this anyway. Remember, we hate pain, uncertainty, and social rejection. So this is not a fault – it’s a bias we have to control for.) And what’s the alternative? You could use the threat of pain, force, or rejection, and you can get someone to do what you ask, yet you can’t win what you can’t see – a person’s thoughts and feelings that way.
What we’re attempting to figure is out is some strategies that allow you to take an action. The goal is not them liking you or the boundary. The goal is for you to facilitate doing something to improve the situation in line with your values. Yes, we are trying to optimize your influence in the situation. Yet, people don’t always see us as we truly are; often they see us through a lens that’s shaped primarily based on how THEY ARE.
Using the DEAR MAN Technique in a Workplace Context
Example: a very close friend who complains to you at work every day and it’s driving you nuts (this actually happened to me ALL THE TIME when I was a lawyer now that I think about it. . .) This one is a bit wordier because the relationship is more complex. I’ll add more scripts for other scenarios!
I’ve added a few pieces to the DEAR MAN technique that come from my experience working with these with clients and other techniques like Motivational Interviewing.
Ask permission: Ask permission to have the conversation. Current research suggests that asking permission helps reduce resistance and encourage autonomy in the other person.
“Sam, can I check in with you on something? Would later today be a good time for me to drop by your office?
Nail Your Nonverbals: Regulate yourself before you start. Use a calm and deeper voice. Slow it down. (High frequency and rapid speaking activate the nervous system – think crying infants are no bueno). Make gentle eye contact. Use the person’s name or a pet name (if appropriate for the context). Try to use “I” statements and less “you” statements. If you can be playful and firm, fine. No sarcasm. Ever. Never.
Take Notes. This may sound overly formal, but my clients find it extremely important – to write down the elements down in advance and plan on reading them to the other person if appropriate for the context. When I ran DBT groups, we always did it this way, and it really helped both people to communicate better. I have a script template that I work through with clients. If you notice that you forget what you say in the moment or get nervous about what the other person is going to say, if it is appropriate in the context, ask if you can reference notes or read your script to the other person. In some contexts at work it might not be appropriate to read an entire script, but you could have notes to refer to. Taking this step will help you stay on track.
Describe: Describe your observations on the situation nonjudgmentally.
“I’ve noticed that in the afternoons when we walk out to our cars together, we often shift into complaining about work.”
Express: Express your feelings openly. At the same time, minimize “you” statements and blaming, shaming. The formula is usually, “When X happens, I feel Y because of Z.” If everyone communicated this way, the world would be such a better place. If appropriate for the context, you can preface slightly here by validating the other person’s feelings or perspective up front as I’ve done below. There’s a lot of prefacing here because of the context, but you could be lighter on that in a closer relationship.
“I really get there’s a lot we’d like to change at the firm. However, talking about them more without solutions makes them seem bigger and doesn’t help me, and I’m concerned it doesn’t help you either. At the end of the day, I feel frustrated because I know we’d like to both get home, yet work sucks us back in – just in another way.”
Assert Needs: Tell the person what you need. You can state your boundary or limit. In this situation, [insert what is ok with you and/or what is not ok with you]. Then, assert what you need or would like them to change. It can be helpful to give some ideas for them as replacement behaviors.
“I’d like to ask that we find another way to connect at work. When we talk, I’d love to hear about any wins that you’ve had at work, so I can high-five you on those, and you can do the same for me. We need that around here. Even better, I’d like to hear about what’s going on with your rec tennis league and your family.”
Remember, you can’t control what they say or do, so if you want to plan ahead, you can go ahead and tell them what you are or aren’t going to do.
“If I feel like we’ve been talking about work at work and not doing work at work, then I wanted to let you know that I’m going to try to remind you, so that we can shift to another topic.”
Reinforce: Tell the person why making this change will help the relationship. Try to use values-based reasons, things that truly matter to you. “If we make this change, [insert here’s how your honoring what is ok with me will help serve our relationship, joint venture, etc.]” For bonus points, contemplate their arguments against you earlier and head them off at the pass.
“If we could change this pattern, I think it could help both of us feel less stressed and burned out, etc. I think this could help us want to hang out more outside of work even with our partners, maybe. It’s like we won’t associate each other with just office stuff!”
be (M)indful. Stay focused on the goal and roll with resistance. If they come back with resistance, roll with it – you knew it was coming. Honor it, validate it, and then reassert the boundary rooted in your values-based reason.
“I just want to say again that really get that what’s been going in the office is really stressful and is putting alot of pressure on you”
Mine for Gold. (This is mine!) One of the most effective ways to increase the likelihood of a behavior is to create positive emotions around it, which you can do with specific positive reinforcement. I call this technique “mining for gold” because you’re assuming the person has positive intent and framing it that way up front. Definitely enhances motivation!
“And I get that things have really been stressful in the office lately. We’re good friends, and I know the last thing that you’d want to do is to put more stress on either of us.” (optional move to make your request more resistance-proof)
Appear Confident: Remember the goal here is process-based. Take the action of asserting the boundary. Taking responsibility for what they think, feel, or do about it is a trap. Those things are not within your control. You can influence it by doing this as well as you can, but that’s it.
Negotiate: You can find middle ground and do some give-and-take with reasonable requests. How much you negotiate (or not) will depend on the person, their behavior, the context, your values, and other factors.
You can negotiate a boundary implicitly / indirectly or explicitly / directly depending again on situational factors.
Implicit: For instance, with any overly helpful family member who is otherwise kind who is giving you unsolicited advice on your relationships, you might want to just try to gently shift the conversation to something else. More interpersonally aware people will sense this and shift easily.
Explicit: With others, you may have to be more explicit. They may not be intentionally being rude – they may just not be aware or not understand the boundary you’re trying to set. With a super overly helpful relative, you may have to clearly state that you’re not going to discuss the relationship with them, and if that, doesn’t work, leave the conversation more abruptly. This is tough for many people because it feels rude, but if you can remember, really it’s true: “CLEAR IS KIND.”
“If you are really struggling and need to talk more directly, would you be willing to give me heads-up, so we can discuss finding a good time in the day. If I know in advance, I can pre-game for this a bit more.” If that doesn’t work or the person isn’t getting it, then you might have to set a harder boundary, “I really don’t want to talk about how bad work sucks now.”
Sometimes boundary setting happens more “online,” so in the moment.
Here are a few situations and options.
If it’s someone you care about and they “know not what they do” as my Nana used to say:
then you could just try to steer past the conversation by asking questions about the other person. People like to talk about themselves.
“How is [insert other thing you’re ok talking about]?” and switch topics.
If you are talking to a person who doesn’t tend to let things go AND it you want to provide some information, it might take more:
“Actually, I’ve chosen not to drink because I feel alot better when I don’t” or “I’ve chosen not to drink for my health.”
Note: If your sharing more would not be aligned with values like authenticity, autonomy, self-compassion, etc., then don’t share any personal information. Behaviors like prefacing, people-pleasing, and reason-giving can function as moves that take you away from who and how you want to be, and end up making you feel lousy afterwards.
If s/he doesn’t take the hint, you can be more direct so:
“I’m not discussing my health choices right now. I’d like to talk about something else. How is . . .”
If it’s just not going to work, then gently withdraw from the conversation.
If the person comes back and asks “why did you walk off?”
Well, first off, I’m so sorry. But then the next pivot could be something like:
“Oh, I said that I didn’t want to talk about my choices, and I got frustrated when it came back up. I can only control my end, so that’s what I did.. I think we should bookmark this for another time (maybe next holiday!!!). Thanks for listening!” (Thanking people for what you want to do them in advance is not intended to be passive-aggressive – it’s actually a form of positive reinforcement and mining for positive intent.)
One of my favorite responses, when someone does something really breathtakingly clueless, is quite simple:
“Wow” said with a nonsarcastic, curious, open look on your face. Mind blown.
Often the problem with people who ask questions that are breathtakingly clueless doesn’t point to anything going on with you whatsoever. It often points to an extreme lack of social awareness. Some people say things like this without awareness in a very ineffective effort to manage their own sense of discomfort and awkwardness in social situations. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.
(This example is NOT For toxic or deeply unhealthy or harassment situations!)
A first response might be something like:
“Hi [Name], I’m spending time with my family right now. I can’t respond to your texts.”
If you want to provide more, then validate + express confidence, don’t just reassure them that actually is going to reinforce the behavior.
“I get this is hard for you, and I believe that you can work through this.”
To make a pivot:
“I get that this is hard for you right now. (Hugs emoji). Although I really want you to feel better about this situation ASAP, realistically nothing I can so or do can change that on a dime. This problem can’t be solved tonight. I don’t think texting like this tonight is helping you. I hope you can do something that gives you some peace. I’m not going to be responding to texts tonight. We can talk about discussing in person [when you’re ready.]”
You could also tell them what it would look like if you could reconnect. If that doesn’t work, then if you feel it’s appropriate, don’t respond to their texts. If you can’t resist, then consider blocking if appropriate. If you can’t resist a stimulus, the principles of stimulus control try to remove it.
A first response might sound something like:
“Mom, when you said [insert toned down version of offensive thing], it [really bothered me, hurt my feelings, made me feel X].”
If the other person responds with something like, “Are you saying that I have to be perfect [or that I’m [insert -ist label]? then you could say something like:
“No, I’m saying that what you said [bothered me, hurt my feelings, etc.], and I’m asking you to please don’t say that to me anymore.”
If you want to put a cherry on top, “I know the last thing that you’d ever want to do is hurt me, so I’m asking for this so we can communicate openly and honestly, which is so important to me.” That bold phrase is one of my favorite communication gold nuggets. What the person is doing is hurting you, so you’re actually just calling that out, yet the truth is that they probably would never want that here. You’re giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Ashar, Y. K., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Dimidjian, S., & Wager, T. D. (2016). Toward a Neuroscience of Compassion. Positive neuroscience, 125-142.
Snyder, K. S., & Luchner, A. F. (2020). The Importance of Flexible Relational Boundaries: The Role of Connectedness in Self-Compassion and Compassion for Others. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 25(4).
Kristin Neff (Researcher on Self-Compassion)
My all-time favorite blog on wit, wisdom, and loads of boundaries! Captain Awkward – You don’t need to be cool to be kind.
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