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Watch Those Boundaries!

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

What do I mean by boundaries? I mean being clear about who you are, your role(s), and how to say no to things that trespass across your boundaries. Of course, the key to having clear boundaries is having enough self insight about who you are and what you are prepared to share or to do in terms of information, time, effort or emotional energy.

Professional Boundaries

When I work with people and groups, be it as a coach or facilitator, I often observe how we treat people with clear professional boundaries with greater respect, and how we tend not to trespass on those boundaries. By contrast, people who don’t have such clearly defined professional boundaries tend to be pushed further and further to take on more and to do more.

Nothing is actually said, but that pressure exists, and I see how they struggle to say no, or else realise too late that they should have said no earlier on!


I learned my professional boundary lesson very early in my career. I was on a demanding 20 hours plus a day international project with a difficult client group. At the time I felt it was my job to do everything for them, and I mean everything! I noticed that the more I did the less they appreciated me, and yet they expected me to do even more and more work.

My colleague, however, was much clearer about her role on that project. From the outset, she laid down the rules and set very explicit expectations: “this is what I am here to do, this is what your role is, and that’s how we’ll work together”. The clients tried their luck with her but she pushed back – politely and with a smile – but firmly nonetheless! And to my dismay, they respected her far more than they did me.

That was a good lesson learned. Granted, in some professional environments, particularly in professional services, there is an expectation that you will do everything for the client – if they say jump, you should reply “how high?” However, throughout my career, both as a professional services provider and as a client of these services, I have consistently found that it is the providers who know and maintain clear boundaries who are treated with the most respect. Clients also seem to appreciate these providers more and use them more. I am a firm believer that the things we say ‘no’ to define us.

Personal Boundaries

It is much harder to set boundaries in your personal life or when you’re dealing with something you feel very strongly about. Perhaps the emotional involvement in personal matters clouds our good judgement. Research will back me up on that with the ‘fight or flight’ theory of negative emotions. When we feel a strong negative emotional response, our ability to think broadly and creatively is compromised, our vision narrows and our body tells us to choose either to fight the person who is a threat or to flee the situation. Rational, self-reflective thought processes do not come into it.

The trick is to recognise when this is occurring, then take a step back and re-establish the boundaries. What I have observed, in myself and others, is that once boundaries are established, you still have the option to lower them again when you feel safe about the situation.

An Analogy

Sometimes, when I discuss this concept with friends or clients, they are puzzled so I started using the analogy of a physical fence between houses. Picture this, you have no fence between you and your neighbour and they have young kids who love coming over to play with your kids. At first this is really nice, but as some family issues arise in their home, they start to eat all three meals at your place, and you find yourself bathing the kids every other night.

You are getting desperate and feeling helpless because your increasingly close relationship with the neighbour’s kids is beginning to interfere with your relationship with your own children. The boundaries, both physical and emotional, are just not there.

So you build a physical fence, you’ve thought about it for a long time and now is the time to do it. Almost overnight, the neighbour’s kids stop coming around so often. You have time to be with your kids, and you return to having a civil and friendly, but more distant, relationship with your neighbouring family. After a few weeks when you feel things have settled down, you invite the neighbour’s kids for a play-date and maybe dinner again. The relationship warms up but it is under your control now: you invite them when you feel you are able to, and they pick up on your lead and back off to give you more space.

On Control

We have to be mindful of our boundaries, both professionally and personally, and check with ourselves that we are comfortable about where they are. If need be, we should be able to assert our boundaries and re-establish them if we feel they are being trespassed.

You might be thinking right now that that all sounds very logical, but how do you actually do it?

The key to knowing what to do is having self insight and trusted people around you who will always provide you with a healthy perspective so that you can regain yours.

Keeping a healthy perspective

Having perspective is crucial. People around you might have noticed your boundaries blurring but, for a host of reasons, they might not tell you. The key is to first recognise that something is not quite right.

In my experience this comes from listening to your ‘gut’ feeling. Picture this, a colleague starts coming into your office every day, closes the door and proceeds to tell you about her problematic and stressful relationship with her mother. The end result is that you find yourself unable to complete your own work which results in you having to work late and missing out on spending time with your loved ones. You might think that something isn’t quite right, however, you’ll probably feel conflicted or even guilty because you want to be there for your friend in her time of need.

At this point, I try to listen to my gut and leave the guilty, conflicted feelings aside. I specifically try to get perspective from someone who has good judgement and who I trust. The reason the perspective of others is so important is because when you realise that something isn’t quite right you are usually emotionally involved and not thinking as clearly as you normally would. To make sure I am reading a situation correctly, I check with people I trust and listen to those who care about me.

By the way, in my experience, when you invite people to give you their perspective, they are happy to provide it. But you also need to be prepared to listen and follow through if you agree with them! That way they feel like their advice was respected and listened to.

Stepping back

Part of the process of gaining perspective involves stepping back from the situation to give you the headspace to listen and reflect on the advice and different points of view. As you step back to listen, in many circumstances the boundaries re-establish themselves without you having to do anything explicit. Sometimes, less is more; we think words are so important, but in face-to-face interactions body language and non-verbal messages are far more powerful than we realise.

The ‘Recipe’

  • Have people around you who are wise and have great perspective.
  • Be mindful of how you feel in your interactions.
  • When something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and gain perspective.

More often than not, the act of being mindful, reflective and taking the time to think and gain perspective will suffice.

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All Topics
  • All Topics
  • Begin with success
  • Self-insight for success
  • Build for success
  • Successful working mothers
  • Lead with success

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