Last year, when I started working with a new executive coach, she told me outright: I am going to make you send some emails you are uncomfortable with. Her pronouncement came on the heels of the long and sordid story I told her about the many problems with boundary setting that I've had in my own professional life. It had gotten me into trouble more times than I could count, I told her, and I needed help.
She promised to do just that. First, though, she reassured me: Everyone struggles with boundaries. And everyone has to work constantly at it to keep building the muscle. Even Brene Brown. Known as "Boundary Brene" to her coworkers, the famed shame and vulnerability researcher has been public about both her strength in setting boundaries and her lapses when failing to do so. When I first saw her speak onstage a decade ago, I remember being impressed when she explained that she required conferences to book her on only direct flights when she traveled to speak. She had little kids at home then, and it was a non-negotiable, she said.
In Dare to Lead, her latest bestseller, she tells a different kind of story. In this one, she is talked into speaking at a conference she doesn't really want to at terms she definitely isn't very comfortable with. The outcome is predictable: resentment, frustration, and disappointment -- on both sides. Ultimately the experience reinforced for her, more than ever, the critical importance of boundaries.
As I read this story, I was sitting in the middle of the open-office floor-plan of my co-working space, a particularly problematic place for anyone who struggles with boundaries. (See: the frequent appearance of availability that leads to constant distraction from others, the endless opportunities for people to ask you to do things that are definitely not on your day's to-do list, the constant access to free baked goods.) As I underlined Brown's words furiously, I looked at all the potential people around me who might just be about to ask me to do something I didn't want to do. I started to sweat.
In the months after reading the book, my coach diligently helped me to set better boundaries. She talked me through my decisions on all things big and small, she gave me the confidence to say what I wanted to say, and -- yes -- she even gave input into the creation of some very tough emails.
Here are three specific things she taught me, that I try to remember every day.
1. Being clear is being kind.
The easiest thing for me to do when I don't want to do something is to get talked into it. The result? I get resentful, I gripe and moan, and I don't follow through. The solution? Say no initially. With clarity. (Radical Candor, by Kim Scott, is a great new book that can help with this journey.)
2. Stop over-explaining.
Research shows that as a woman I am particularly susceptible to over-explaining or over-qualifying when speaking. This is even truer when I'm in a tough spot -- like trying to set a boundary with someone and avoid doing something they want me to do. Enter my own challenge to write more emails that make me uncomfortable, more often. (Think fewer words, fewer emojis, and fewer apologies.)
3. You can always change the rules of engagement.
The way you interacted with someone in the past does not have to determine how you interact with them in the future. It is okay to change the rules. Will the other party occasionally be confused? Maybe. I recently had to set a boundary with someone (in my co-working office, no less) and I'm sure it came off as confusing. I was a doormat one minute, and a brick wall with a hard "No!" the next. Did it matter? Not to me. Ultimately, the important part was that I did set the boundary. Eventually.
Ultimately, as I fight the good fight to set better boundaries at work, I'm deeply grateful for the work of one wise coach who gave me the inspiration for my new coffee mug: Boundaries are the New Black. It's a journey, and I'm on it.