facebook google plus twitter
Webucator's Free Working with Difficult People Tutorial

Lesson: Setting Boundaries

Welcome to our free Working with Difficult People tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Working with Difficult People course.

One of the most profoundly successful ways to deal with difficult people is to learn how to set and maintain boundaries. In this lesson, you will learn these concepts.

Lesson Goals

  • Learn what a boundary is.
  • Learn about communicating boundaries and consequences.
  • Learn how to negotiate an agreement.
  • Learn the importance of enforcing boundaries.
  • Learn how to use a rubric to measuring behavior.

Boundaries

Boundaries are limitations on what we will or will not accept from others. Like a boundary set by a fence with a gate, relational boundaries allow positive things into our environment, and keep negative things out.

A boundary consists of an expectation and ensuing consequences. Some common workplace documents that reflect boundaries include:

  1. A company's policies and procedures.
  2. A department's procedural handbook.
  3. Contractual agreements.

In the workplace there are many behaviors that are expected to be performed in a certain way, and most people behave accordingly. For example, most people will:

  1. Arrive to work on time.
  2. Do the work they are asked to do.
  3. Ask questions when they need information.
  4. Follow set policies and procedures.
  5. Act politely and be respectful.

However, people with difficult personalities tend to disregard customary expectations, which results in:

  1. Other people taking on excess workload.
  2. A loss of privacy or space.
  3. Offensive, disrespectful words that may include bullying.
  4. Gossip.
  5. Wasted time.
  6. Other behaviors that prevent someone else from performing his or her work.

When this happens repeatedly, the person who is affected by the behaviors needs to create and communicate intentional boundaries. There is a process for setting boundaries, as follows:

  1. Creating expectations.
  2. Determining consequences.
  3. Communicating the expectations and consequences.
  4. Negotiating terms.
  5. Enforcing the agreement.

This lesson explores the process of developing healthy boundaries.

Boundaries

Duration: 5 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about boundaries.


  1. Which of the following is not a boundary?
    1. A backyard wall
    2. A book
    3. A country's borders
    4. Skin
    5. A water glass
    6. A book cover

  2. Choose the statement that best explains why boundaries are needed at work.
    1. To create a fair workplace.
    2. To make certain everyone has good attitudes.
    3. To protect the ability of workers to perform their job duties well.
    4. To protect the company from judicial proceedings.

Solution:

Solutions:


  1. B. A book

  2. C. To protect the ability of workers to perform their job duties well.

Personal Application for Boundaries

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following questions.

  1. Have you ever felt resentful toward someone at work? Do you know why? Resentment is a result of broken boundaries.
    1. List situations that annoy you or cause you resentment.
    2. For each situation, describe what you'd like to see happen to stop the negative feelings.
    3. Consider each desire and evaluate as objectively as possible whether or not your expectations are realistic. If you feel comfortable doing so, have another person review your expectations and give you their objective opinion.
    4. Hold on to these issues; you'll refer back to them later.

Solution:

  1. For this exercise, think about your own workplace and be honest about your answers to the questions. You do not have to share them with anyone. Focus especially on what you'd like to see happen in the way of a solution.

Communicating Boundaries and Consequences

A person who is feeling resentment toward another because of the other person's behavior has an obligation to communicate their concerns to that other person. However, communicating boundaries can be challenging, especially if one is working with someone who has a difficult personality.

If the other person is reactive, a friendly environment and attitude can prevent inflaming the behavior. Here are a number of tactics that can help with the communication of boundaries:

  1. Make certain your expectations are realistic.
  2. Have a positive attitude.
  3. Create a non-threatening atmosphere by meeting in a neutral area.
  4. Minimize stress by setting a dedicated time to meet so that interruption can be avoided.
  5. Avoid emotion, even if the other person gets emotional.
  6. Use 'I' statements to keep the focus on the concern and minimize defensive behavior.
  7. Use positive feedback as learned in the last lesson.
  8. Listen and negotiate terms that are acceptable to both parties.
  9. Concentrate on the problem, not the person.

Consequences

Expectations are only productive if they have related consequences. Consequences take place when a boundary is upheld and when a boundary is broken. Both the expectation and the consequence should be communicated together. Consequences should be:

  1. Clear.
  2. Appropriate.
  3. Realistic.
  4. Understood by both parties.

A consequence that cannot be fulfilled is an empty threat and leads to broken promises. Here is an example of a communicated boundary:

  1. I'm struggling to get my work done on time because it depends on having up-to-date flowcharts. (Stating the problem)
  2. I'd appreciate it if you would complete them the day before I do my reports. (Stating the boundary)
  3. If the charts can't be completed, I'll need to talk to your supervisor to see if they can get you more help or arrange another way to get the work done. (Describing the negative consequence)
  4. But if all the flowcharts are done on time for the next three months, I'll bring in pizza for both our teams. (Describing the positive consequence)

Communicating Boundaries and Consequences

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about the boundaries and consequences.


  1. Match the following:
    1. Terms
      1. Emotion
      2. "I" statements
      3. Feedback
      4. Expectations
      5. Positive
      6. Problem
      7. Neutral location
    2. Related Terms
      1. Reduce defensiveness
      2. Attitude
      3. Nonthreatening
      4. Avoid
      5. Realistic
      6. Not person
      7. Positive

  2. What happens when boundaries have no consequences?
    1. The threat of a consequence will suffice.
    2. The boundary will be unproductive.
    3. People will feel better about the boundary and will respect it.

Solution:

Solutions:


  1. The answers to question 1 are as follows:
    1. i. Emotion and iv. Avoid
    2. ii. "I" statements and i. Reduce defensiveness
    3. iii. Feedback and vii. Positive
    4. iv. Expectations and v. Realistic
    5. v. Positive and ii. Attitude
    6. vi. Problem and vi. Not person
    7. vii. Neutral location and iii. Nonthreatening

  2. B. The boundary will be unproductive.

Personal Application for Communicating Boundaries

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will...

  1. Refer to the list of situations you created in the Exercise 25.
    1. Write a boundary for each, including:
      1. Your expectation.
      2. What the consequence will be if the boundary is respected.
      3. What the consequence will be if the boundary is not respected.

Solution:

Recall that for this exercise you will use the items you listed in the last personal application to form your answer. Answers will vary. One possible answer as an example could be that my problem situation is that my colleague who answers the phones first does not use as professional and friendly of a tone as I'd like and she forwards calls to me that she could answer herself:

  1. My expectation is that the customer service rep who answers the phones first will use a more friendly and professional tone and that she will try harder to answer the easy questions some customers have rather than forwarding to me. Call that are forwarded to me should be ones that she can't answer..
  2. The consequence if this does improve and the boundary is respected will be that I will thank my colleague for making my job easier when customers are already pretty happy when they are forwarded to me and I should notice a decrease in calls coming to me that don't need to.
  3. The consequence if this does not improve will be that I will talk to our supervisor about my concerns and how it negatively impacts me and my performance. (For example, when calls are forwarded to me customers are sometimes annoyed because they were not treated well on first contact.)

Negotiating Terms

When reasonable boundaries (expectations and consequences) are communicated, most people will:

  1. Accept the boundary.
  2. Understand the rationale.
  3. Agree to the boundary.

However, a person may object to the boundary if he or she feels the boundary creates problems. When trying to work with a difficult person, the possibility of an objection is all the more likely because they will perceive things as problems that other people will not.

If a clearly stated boundary is not accepted, the decision has to be made:

  1. To keep the boundary and stand firm.
  2. To adjust the boundary.

If the decision is made to adjust the boundary, it may be beneficial to bring the other person into the boundary development process. This is called, negotiation.

Win-Win Negotiations

During negotiations, the goal should be to create a win-win situation in which both parties benefit.

Things to ask include:

  1. What do I need/want? (Be specific.)
  2. Why do I need it?
  3. How do I need it?
  4. When do I need it?
  5. What does the other person need/want?
  6. Can I do what I have agreed to do? Is it realistic? Is it beneficial?
  7. What might I be able to offer the other person to encourage him or her to accept the boundary?

The negotiating process should never include behavior or words that are:

  1. Intimidating.
  2. Derogatory.
  3. Inflammatory.
  4. Critical.

These are negative approaches that shut down communication. The most desirable approach will include a respectful discussion with the most open and honest attitudes possible.

Some negotiations can be rather challenging and may require extra steps. These extra steps may include:

  1. Scheduling a second meeting if emotions get inflamed.
  2. Scheduling recurring meetings to refine terms until they are mutually agreeable.
  3. Reducing immediate expectations and working on smaller boundaries that are components of the full boundary.
  4. Bringing in a third party to help with communication. A third-party person should be:
    1. Neutral.
    2. Acceptable to both parties.

Compromise

Negotiations often result in compromise. The final desired outcome should not be changed during negotiations, but the way those outcomes are met may be open for discussion. For example:

  1. A boundary may be proposed that a component will be delivered by the courier at a certain time every few days.
    1. Receiving the component is the desired outcome and non-negotiable.
      1. How that component is delivered may not be of concern.
    2. Receiving the component every few days may not be negotiable.
      1. Which days the component is delivered may not be of concern.
  2. Two points open for discussion are how the component is delivered and on what days.

Often an offer of service will resolve the problem. In the example given in the first section of this lesson, a boundary was set for getting flowcharts completed in time for the reports.

To help achieve the desired goal, the offer may be extended, "I know you get interrupted by phone calls a lot, so if it will help, my staff will take the calls that come in for two hours on that day. Will you be able to train them on how to take the calls?"

The other person will:

  1. Accept the offer.
  2. Reject the offer. Rejecting the offer often negates the argument, thus negating the barrier to perform the needed service.

Healthy Boundary Concepts

As we negotiate with the other person, we always need to uphold healthy boundaries for both parties.

Determining a healthy boundary requires an understanding of the following nine boundary principles:

  1. Healthy boundaries consider multiple perspectives and are considerate of the needs of both parties.
  2. The boundaries of both parties must be respected to achieve mutual benefit.
  3. People are responsible for their own:
    1. Behaviors.
    2. Attitudes.
    3. Emotions.
    4. Thoughts.
  4. It is acceptable to help others overcome a problem.
  5. It is not acceptable to rescue others from their own:
    1. Responsibilities that have been delegated to them.
    2. Consequences resulting from their own actions, because the other person:
      1. Will be denied the opportunity to learn from the experience.
      2. Will be denied the opportunity to enjoy the success of overcoming the problem.
  6. It is acceptable for someone to:
    1. Feel "hurt" by a boundary.
    2. Be required to put out more effort.
  7. It is not acceptable for a boundary to "harm" a person by exposing him or her to:
    1. Physical danger.
    2. Unjust judgment by other employees.
  8. Behaviors always result in consequences that may be positive or negative.
  9. Helping people to one's own detriment is unhealthy.

Negotiating Terms

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about the negotiations.


  1. Which of the following are not a personal responsibly?
    1. Behaviors.
    2. Attitudes.
    3. Atmosphere.
    4. Emotions.
    5. Thoughts.

  2. True or False:
    1. The goal of negotiations is to get what we want.
    2. If something hurts a person's feelings, it shouldn't be done.
    3. Helping a person too much rescues them from their responsibilities.
    4. Consequences are a punitive concept.
    5. Boundaries often have negotiable and non-negotiable components.
    6. If a person does not agree to a boundary, we should talk to Human Resources.
    7. There is a difference between "hurt" and "harm."

Solution:

Solutions:


  1. C. Atmosphere.

  2. Answers are as follows:
    1. The goal of negotiations is to get what we want. False
    2. If something hurts a person's feelings, it shouldn't be done. False
    3. Helping a person too much rescues them from their responsibilities. True
    4. Consequences are a punitive concept. False
    5. Boundaries often have negotiable and non-negotiable components. True
    6. If a person does not agree to a boundary, we should talk to Human Resources. False
    7. There is a difference between "hurt" and "harm." True

Personal Application for Negotiating Terms

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following question.


  1. For each boundary created in the previous personal applications, list everything you can think of that is negotiable.

Solution:

For this exercise, answers will again vary. As an example, I can refer back to my example about the improved first-line customer service in the last personal communication. In that example, I think the following are negotiable:

  1. Time. I think it can be negotiable when more positive results can be seen. It may take a day or two for the front-line customer rep to improve her performance and get in the habit of trying to answer the easier customer questions.
  2. How. I think how this change is made can be negotiable. For example, the front-line customer service rep may need a cheat sheet or checklist of sorts to refer to for answering the questions I expect her to be able to answer.

Enforcing Boundaries

The most difficult part of maintaining a healthy boundary is enforcement. Enforcing a boundary may trigger conflict, and conflict can be quite uncomfortable.

Whenever possible, consequences should be enforced; however, in some situations the choice may be made to not enforce a boundary. We will discuss those situations in the next section.

Choosing not to enforce a boundary carries potential problems:

  1. Trust is created when a boundary is enforced:
    1. A boundary and its consequences are promises.
    2. Not imposing a boundary breaks the promises; this is, or appears to be, deceitful.
    3. Deceit creates an untrusting relationship.
    4. It is harder to set future boundaries when trust has been broken.
  2. If we make concessions too often, we invalidate the boundary.
  3. A boundary that needs to be changed often is one that was not well formulated to begin with.

If a boundary turns out to be unenforceable, the consequence need to be reevaluated and realistic ones formulated.

Evaluating Consequences

There are two questions to ask when evaluating whether a consequences should be enforced:

  1. Why was the boundary broken?
  2. What will be the results if the consequence is not applied?

The flexibility one gives to a consequence depends on the severity of the outcome when that boundary is broken.

  1. There is more flexibility if the outcome is rather minor.
  2. There is less flexibility If the outcome:
    1. Is severe.
    2. Is costly.
    3. Promotes habitual behavior.

Using the previous example, if the report was extremely important and our own supervisor needed it first thing the next morning, the outcome is severe, so there is not any latitude to give more time.

Intent is another consideration when evaluating boundaries. Enforcing boundaries may be inappropriate if a boundary is broken:

  1. By accident.
  2. Through no action on the part of the other person.

However, boundaries should be adhered to if the boundary was broken by:

  1. Intent.
  2. Carelessness.
  3. Habit.

For example, we communicate to a staff member that we need a certain report by the end of the day and if he or she does not complete the report he or she will be required to stay late to finish the task.

  • At the end of the day we have not received the report.
  • The staff member says he or she has to get home for a child's birthday party.

How do we know whether to enforce the boundary or change it? We are better off enforcing the boundary if:

  1. The person was given ample time to complete the task.
  2. The person chose to complete other tasks that are lower priority.

We are likely to not enforce consequences if:

  1. We know that the person had done everything within his or her power to complete the task.
  2. The person encountered obstacles outside of their own control.

We may search for a compromise if:

  1. If the outcome for not completing the report is severe.
  2. Flexibility is reasonable and justifiable.

To exemplify the third point, one might allow the person to go home with the report unfinished, provided he or she returns to work early the next morning to complete the task before normal work hours.

Enforcing Boundaries

Duration: 5 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about enforcing boundaries.


  1. Consequences should enforced if a boundary is broken by:
    1. Accident
    2. Cost
    3. Principle
    4. Habit
    5. Severity

  2. When a boundary is broken and consequences are not enforced:
    1. People are grateful.
    2. People will continue to break boundaries.
    3. Trust is broken.
    4. No harm is done.
    5. People don't get hurt feelings.

Solution:

Solutions:


  1. D. Habit

  2. B. People will continue to break boundaries and C. Trust is broken.

Personal Application for Enforcing Boundaries

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following.

  1. Using one of the boundaries you wrote in the previous personal application exercises, describe a situation in which the boundary should be enforced and a situation in which the boundary might be negotiated. Remember the considerations that were listed in the Negotiating Terms section of this lesson, particularly the concepts of help vs. rescue and hurt vs. harm.

Solution:

  • Example in which boundary should be enforced. Using our example from the previous personal application exercises, an example of a broken boundary where the boundary will need to be enforced is if the front-line customer service representative does not accept the boundary and the situation gets worse (for example, if more calls are coming through in which the customer's questions could have been answered easily). Though this result would be frustrating, we need to remember that the customer service rep may feel that the boundary "hurts". While this is acceptable for her to feel this way, it is still okay to require that more effort is given to this situation to comply with, and enforce, the boundary. Even though the rep did not comply, that does not make it okay to harm that person by judging her. Note it is also unacceptable to rescue the rep by taking over her unmet responsibility. We will need to be careful helping her to our own detriment.
  • Example in which boundary can be negotiated. In our example, if the customer service rep has shown an effort toward respecting the boundary but has some questions and ideas about how better to handle some of the responsibility of answering the questions, the end solution may be negotiable.
  • Measuring Behavior

    It may be helpful to define measurements for behavior to:

    1. Determine whether boundaries and consequences are appropriate.
    2. Remove as much emotion from a situation as possible.

    Measurements can be qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative measurements may be used if one expects:

    1. A task to be performed within a certain timeline.
    2. A certain amount of product to be produced.
    3. A certain number of repetitive tasks to be performed.

    Qualitative evaluations are needed if the behavior cannot be specifically measured. Examples of this include:

    1. The courtesy of a sales representative.
    2. Leadership.
    3. Customer satisfaction.

    Rubrics

    A great system for evaluating behavior is the rubric. Rubrics are commonly used in education and in job performance; they can also be used in relationships. The rubric is a document that:

    1. Lists expected actions or behaviors.
    2. Defines criteria for the actions or behaviors based on levels of quality or quantity.
    3. Assigns a value to the actions based upon the criteria achieved.
    4. Supports decision making by providing a method by which to objectively discern qualitative factors.

    This is an example of a job performance rubric:

    Performance Rubric
    Needs Improvement Below Expectations Meet Expectations Exceeds Expectations Excels
    1 pts 2 pts 3 pts 4 pts 5 pts
    Attitude Shows no interest Shows little interest in work Shows interest in work and does not complain often Clearly enjoys work and has a good attitude Enthusiastic, interested in work, and is motivated to do well
    Punctuality Regularly late for work and/or meetings Late to work or meetings more than 10% of the time Late occasionally Rarely late Never late
    Following Instructions Does not follow instructions Needs repeated, detailed assistance Follows instructions with little difficulty Follows instructions with no difficulty Follows instructions consistently and seeks our additional information
    Interpersonal Relationships Disruptive and uncooperative with others Needs to improve relationships Interactions with others is acceptable Poised, courteous, and tactful with others Interacts well with all people
    Quality of Work Does little or low-quality work Needs help to do quality work Does expected amount of quality work Exceeds expectations in quality and quantity of work Performs above and beyond expectations. Work is consistently neat and accurate

    Translated into a decision-making tool for determining boundaries with a difficult person who has a bad attitude and is verbally abusive, the rubric may look like this:

    • Situation: Co-Worker demands things on her timeline without consideration of my workload.
    • Boundary: I will provide her with needs when I am able, but not at the risk of my own work. I will not accept demeaning words.
    Boundaries Rubric
    Unacceptable Behavior Tolerable Behavior Acceptable Behavior Pleasant Behavior Exceptional Behavior
    Respect Calls me names or insults me Has haughty attitude but does not use rude language Speaks politely Speaks in soft tones, says please and thank you Smiles and offers compliments
    Requests Waits until the last minute to request things and expects me to stop everything to help with her job Waits until the last minute to request things or requests things in a timely manner but expects me to help with her job Requests things in a timely manner and asks for help with her job occasionally Gives advance notice of needs and asks for help with her job occasionally Gives advance notice of needs and does her own job

    Response:

    1. Unacceptable Behavior - Apply boundary: Say no; report behavior to supervisor
    2. Tolerable Behavior - Apply boundary: Say no to immediate help, but help when time allows
    3. Acceptable Behavior - Be courteous, help when able and offer assistance when able
    4. Pleasant Behavior - Be courteous, give assistance as soon as possible, make extra effort to help
    5. Exceptional Behavior - Provide assistance in advance

    The rubric helps a person think through a situation and minimize the emotional responses that can inflame situations. Also, when appropriate, the rubric may be helpful to include in negotiations so that both parties are fully aware of the consequences of certain behaviors.

    Measuring Behavior

    Duration: 5 minutes.

    In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about the measuring behavior.


    1. A rubric is:
      1. Used exclusively for performance evaluations.
      2. An objective measurement tool.
      3. A small, square puzzle.

    2. True or false:
      1. Qualitative measurements are easier than quantitative measurements.
      2. Quantitative measurements are easier than qualitative measurements.
      3. Measuring behavior is judgmental.
      4. In all situations, we should follow our heart to resolve problems.

    Solution:

    Solutions:


    1. B. An objective measurement tool.

      1. Qualitative measurements are easier than quantitative measurements. False
      2. Quantitative measurements are easier than qualitative measurements. True
      3. Measuring behavior is judgmental. False
      4. In all situations, we should follow our heart to resolve problems. False

    Personal Application for Measuring Behaviors

    Duration: 15 minutes.

    In this exercise, you will complete the following rubric.


    1. Complete the rubric below for a situation you know of that involves the behaviors of a difficult person.

    Situation:

    Boundary:

    Boundaries Rubric
    Unacceptable Behavior Tolerable Behavior Acceptable Behavior Pleasant Behavior Exceptional Behavior
    Respect
    Requests

    My response:

    1. Unacceptable Behavior - Apply boundary:
    2. Tolerable Behavior - Apply boundary:
    3. Acceptable Behavior
    4. Pleasant Behavior
    5. Exceptional Behavior