Setting Boundaries

People cross the line all the time. Most often it’s carelessness or not understanding where the boundary is rather than maliciousness. But sometimes people really are trying to take advantage.

I think boundaries are usually narrower than we often think. Telling someone else what to do is almost always a boundary violation unless one is telling someone to back off from a boundary violation, or if or one is defending the boundaries of people unable to defend themselves, such as children. Even expressing a personal opinion without being asked, for example about someone’s attire or political beliefs, violates a boundary because in most cases how someone else chooses to dress or what they believe doesn’t affect oneself.

Having good boundaries is about treating others with respect, minding one’s business, and greatly reducing expectations of other people (one’s expectations are often an imposition on others).

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication has some great tips for setting boundaries. How can communication be violent? It may not harm one physically, but it can do emotional harm.

As clichéd as it is, “I statements” (or any statement in the first person) are the key to nonviolent communication. Telling someone they’re a jerk after being insulted is revenge. The situation gets worse from there. But not only does one take responsibility for one’s feelings by saying, “It’s not okay to call me a jerk”, the statement also does not frame oneself as a victim (as in, “You hurt my feelings”). The boundary is clear, and it puts the onus on the offender to address his or her behaviour.

Active listening is also part of Rosenberg’s advice. By this he means holding off on presenting one’s side of the story until one has made a genuine effort to understand what the other person is saying. Instead of interpreting their statements, one asks clarifying questions. A danger here is the person using the situation to monopolize the conversation and not reciprocating the active listening.

I’m concerned that in some cases Rosenberg’s approach could become passive-aggressive. For example, he describes a situation where a man made a comment about greedy Jews. Rosenberg is Jewish and felt angry, but he handled it by asking clarifying questions about the man’s viewpoint until the man was able to see for himself that it was a bigoted comment.

That’s fine if one is dealing with a rational person. But some people would use the opportunity to say more bigoted things. And I personally think that actively listening to someone’s bigoted rant is patronizing because while one is patiently listening he thinks the listener is sympathetic, but in reality one already knows where he’s coming from and doesn’t care what justifications he has to offer.

Sometimes it’s better just to confront someone directly, but nonviolently. If I were Jewish and faced with an anti-Semite, I’d have no interest or obligation to actively listen (i.e. indulge) their bigotry. Instead, I’d say, “I’m Jewish, and I think comments like that are unacceptable”. I image he’d be stunned into silence. I’m taking full responsibility for my feelings, but I’m not attacking him personally. I’m focusing on his words, and I’m setting a clear boundary. In contrast, if I called him a bigot then I would be attacking him personally, and that would make him feel justified in attacking back. It would escalate, and the boundary would remain undefined.

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