Tackling Boundaries, Expectations & Difficult Conversations

a yellow line with with a pair of shoes on either side

Written by Susan Helmick, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate College

In both our personal and professional lives, boundaries play a crucial role in delineating where we end and others begin, guiding interactions and relationships. Clear boundaries foster healthier relationships by promoting mutual respect, understanding, and empathy in personal connections, and collaboration in professional settings. Additionally, they are instrumental in guarding mental and emotional well-being to prevent stress and burnout by prioritizing self-care and balance. Boundaries also enhance productivity and effectiveness by optimizing focus and task management, while enabling personal growth by cultivating resilience, self-awareness, and confidence in communicating and upholding limits. 

Implementing Boundaries Effectively

Boundaries focus on our own behavior and limits. While we can’t control other people’s actions or attitudes, we can influence them through clear communication and respect. This begins with self-reflection to assess values, priorities, and limitations and decide on areas of concern. This introspective process helps identify where you may feel overwhelmed, drained, or disrespected in personal or professional relationships and develop strategies to address them. Outline behaviors that are acceptable and those that are not and be consistent with consequences when these self-evident lines are tested or crossed. Respectful yet firm reinforcement of boundaries ensures their integrity is preserved. Moreover, flexibility and adaptability are essential to align with the evolving dynamics of personal and professional environments. Finally, seeking support from trusted individuals—be it friends, family, mental health professionals or colleagues—plays a vital role in navigating boundary-setting challenges. Surrounding yourself with individuals who respect and uphold boundaries fosters a supportive environment that encourages reciprocity.

Striking a Balance at Work

For new professionals, mastering clear communication and assertiveness is vital in setting boundaries, even without proven leverage. Balancing expectations is key during this phase, but requires incorporating organizational norms, defining job roles, and realistically evaluating personal capabilities. While setting boundaries early fosters healthy workplace dynamics, it needs to align with an individual’s position and authority. Established professionals can use experience to navigate boundaries more seamlessly, but newcomers can set the stage for growth by understanding that patience and perseverance are fundamental to both boundaries and professional development.

The Value of Having a Script

Establishing boundaries involves confidently advocating for your needs. This often leads to difficult conversations. A script provides a roadmap for constructive dialogue; outlining key points and goals for the conversation and helping you stay focused on the core issues at hand to minimize tangents that might derail the discussion. It allows you to predict potential reactions and prepare thoughtful statements in advance, especially in emotionally charged situations. A well-crafted script helps guide the conversation toward resolution by navigating challenges and finding common ground. Here are five tips for creating and using your own:

  1. Identify the Purpose: Clearly define the purpose and desired outcome of the conversation. What specific issue or concern needs to be addressed, and what do you hope to achieve through the discussion?
  2. Anticipate (but Don’t Assume!) Responses: Consider potential reactions or responses from the other party and prepare counterarguments or clarifications. Anticipating different scenarios can help you feel more confident during the conversation but remember - people may have different ideas or options than you expect.
  3. Practice Empathetic Communication: Craft your script with empathy and understanding, considering how your words may be received by the other person. Use "I" statements to express your feelings and perspective, and actively listen to their responses without judgment.
  4. Be Flexible: While a script provides structure, remain flexible and open to unexpected developments or shifts in the conversation. Adapt your approach as needed to support rapport and keep the dialogue constructive.
  5. Follow Up: After the conversation, follow up with a summary of key points discussed and any agreed-upon action steps. Reiterate your commitment to finding solutions and maintaining open communication moving forward.

Seeking more guidance? Check out Ask a Manager for expert advice on how to set boundaries when taking time off, saying no to things at work, and navigating high-workloads and burnout. For graduate students wanting an in-person learning experience, Casey Frazee Katz, MA, LPCC, presents a workshop, “Building Better Boundaries: Taking Care So You Can Be Your Best Self”,  on Thursday, April 4th from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m., giving participants actionable insights into defining boundaries, surmounting obstacles, and creating personalized plans. Read more on GetInvolvedUC and RSVP now.