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Setting boundaries with those you love

It is human nature to want the best for those we love. Despite our best intentions or the best intentions of those we love, me might step out of our lane. We all do it - we think we know what is best for someone else and through advice or behaviour, we step into their lane. How do we tell those we love to get back in their lane?

Some of us struggle to feel comfortable with the idea – perhaps believing that we shouldn’t have the conversation in the first place, or believing we should just live with things as they are. And often, even when we know what boundaries we want to set, we may be reluctant to have the conversation, as we are concerned about how that might impact the relationship.

Sam (not his real name) is struggling with how to set clear boundaries with his parents. He wants them to know that he values them and the relationship but he is tired of them constantly asking questions about his relationship and when they are going to settle down and have kids. They ask him often enough that it has gotten to the point he doesn’t want to call and talk to them and he is not looking forward to seeing everyone at Thanksgiving as he doesn’t want to have to deal with this again. He is beginning to think about avoiding the whole thing. His partner is also invited to Thanksgiving and he doesn’t want to put her through this either.

There are two options in this situation. The first is to do nothing and say nothing which will likely lead to a larger disconnect in the relationship, with him avoiding family functions and engaging with the family less often and from a place of dread or disconnection. It is entirely possible resentment will build up distancing them. The second option is to deal with it head on. But how do we have these challenging conversations while ensuring that the relationship remains intact?

Non-violent communication (NVC) is an approach to communication that I have found really helpful. In situations that can be emotionally charged or where you are concerned about how the person might respond to your message, it removes any sense of blame and allows the communication to be delivered in a way that is respectful.

Expressing yourself using NVC follows a 4-step formula developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

  1. Observations – clearly identifying what observe or see, hear or imagine)

  2. “When I…… (see, hear, etc)”

  3. Feelings – how I feel in relation to the observations

  4. “I feel……

  5. Needs – identifying what you need or value

  6. “I need/value……..

  7. Requests – Identifying a request that includes an action but does not include a demand

  8. “ I request….. or “would you be willing to…..

Notice that all four statements are “I statements” There is no use of the word you and I believe that is one of the key reasons it works. There is no reference to Sam’s girlfriend and how she feels either (as it involves only reflecting things that this person observes, feels, needs and wants). When we use the word ‘you’ people tend to get defensive. It can also be used to receive communication or reflect back what you are hearing from someone else in much the same way.

Runners keeping to their lane

An example of how Sam might use NVC could go something like this:

“When I am asked about my relationship, I feel uncomfortable and pressured. I need a break from talking about it to let my relationship unfold as it does naturally. Would you be willing to stop asking me questions about the future of my relationship?”

The first time I tried NVC, I have to admit it felt a bit stilted or “canned”. The conversation was not very natural and I am still not where I want to be. At the same time, people who are really skilled at it can integrate it into a conversation without me even noticing. There are lots of resources available on NVC if you are interested in learning more.

Next time someone you know and love, enters your lane, give it a try and let me know how it works.

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