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Boundaries: flex or hold?

Your line manager moves a date for an important strategy meeting and it clashes with your son’s driving test, which you promised to take him to. What do you do?

You are organising a two day team event. A key member of the team tells you they can only do the second day. What do you do?

Of course, these are normal and everyday decisions and dilemmas. I’m interested in how aware we are of our habits and defaults when it comes to managing boundaries and saying ‘no’ or ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘that’s not OK’.

I read with interest (and as usual several weeks late!) about the TikTok-fuelled trend for “Quiet Quitting”, a rebranded version of work-to-rule in which any demand outside the job description is ignored. This seems like a creative, passive-aggressive response when the hope of a more open ‘no’ being honoured by those in authority has either been lost or has never really been tested.

Boundary negotiations are critical for systems, organisations and groups to function. Boundary management is one of the most important leadership skills. I find my coaching conversations with clients about boundaries have a couple of threads; one social and one personal. The social thread is about awareness of culture. Is your nation/organisation/team a culture where a ‘no’ is met with curiosity or with condemnation? When you say ‘no’ to your boss, does she get interested or does she get irritated?

The personal thread brings awareness to our individual habits of relating. Are you someone who finds it easy or difficult to say ‘no’? Do you avoid disappointing others at all cost or do you see disappointing others as a necessary part of life? Does your life experience condition you to imagine that your ‘no’ will be met with agreement, disagreement, dialogue, debate or derision?

With awareness of these factors, we can move forward to some experiments. Mostly, I find that these are experiments in offering and receiving ‘no’ with curiosity. Try offering a ‘no’ and finding out what really is the impact of holding a boundary. Put your projections to the test. Try receiving someone else’s ‘no’ with curiosity. Does it really mean what you think it means and could it be the beginning of a richer dialogue?