The Truth about Boundaries, Curiosity, and Requests (Part 1 of 2)

Learning how to recognize and manage your boundaries and respect others’ boundaries is key to growing emotional intelligence and generally being a better human. Most importantly, managing boundaries is essential to healthy conflict, reduced stress, and creating a psychologically safe environment for yourself.

In the first of this two-part blog, we’ll dig into understanding boundaries. In the coming weeks, stay tuned for a blog on the skill of practicing curiosity and making requests which can help you manage the sometimes tumultuous landscape of your inner dialogue and maybe the panorama of someone else’s boundaries.

Would you like FRIES with that?

We spend just over 13 years at work in our lifetimes; that’s 676 weeks and over 27 thousand hours. Relationships at the office are arguably just as critical as our familial or social connections. With the abundance of social media, communication technologies, and increased connectedness the edges of our boundaries are blurring more and more every day.

Before I can discuss what a boundary is, I have to cover two other topics: consent and agency. Here are some basic definitions to get started.

  • Consent is the permission given to others when they make a request.
  • Agency is an action that can be taken freely without needing another person’s consent.

That seems really straightforward. However, it’s essential to go a little deeper in explaining consent. FRIES is an acronym provided by Planned Parenthood (PP) that stands for: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. While they didn’t create the acronym for the workplace, the neat thing about consent is that it’s the same no matter what the context. Breaking down the acronym and adjusting it for any circumstance, it looks like this:

  • Freely given. Consent should be given without pressure, force, manipulation, threat, coercion, or while impaired.
  • Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about given consent, at any time, even if consent has been provided before in the same scenario.
  • Informed. When someone offers consent, it must be with all the relevant information. Withholding information or outright lying to someone invalidates consent.
  • Enthusiastic.  If someone isn’t excited, or really into it, that’s not consent. Another way to see this is a firm and confident agreement.
  • Specific. Each new situation is a new request with a new opportunity for consent. All parties should be clear on what consent is given and how that consent meets everyone’s need in the scenario.

The easiest way to visualize consent is through physical boundaries, so let’s start there. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re meeting someone, and one of you is a hugger, and the other one isn’t? Maybe you’re the hugger expressing your agency by moving in for the hug. Perhaps you’re not the hugger and now have to figure out how to make it clear you don’t consent to the hug. It’s awkward, right? There’s this weird dance where the non-hugger maybe cringes and leans away from the embrace. They may even put their hand in front of the hugger to encourage a handshake instead of so much physical contact. Possibly worse, they may allow the hug to happen thus avoiding the awkward interaction but hugging because they feel pressured to do so. To the hug receiver, this is a position of consent. To the hug initiator, this is a position of agency.

What is a boundary?

That line between consent and agency is a boundary. Boundaries are the line of demarcation that indicates some limit has been reached. In the above case, the limit is the extent of the physical touch desired. Even though the hugger in the situation has a less limiting boundary, the non-hugger has a more limiting boundary and so that must be respected. Boundaries aren’t unique to the world of physical interactions though. Here are a few other examples where boundaries frequently appear and the question of consent and agency arises:

  • Emotional: You might be asked to present a happy face or tone of voice even when you feel differently. A boundary faced by every person in a customer service job.
  • Behavioral: You might be asked to do additional work or take on new responsibilities without a way to say no, negotiate other priorities, or challenge the direction.
  • Moral: You might be expected to do things that are out of alignment with your values (or the company values). For example, your manager may require you to inaccurately report the status of a project as green even if trust and honesty are of high importance to you.
  • Professional: A company might require that employees comply with a business-professional dress code. Employees sign an employee contract expressing consent.

We don’t perceive many of these experiences as a request or a choice, but an implied expectation. This brings me to a critical point about consent. Many times in our lives the consent is implicit, meaning unspoken and assumed. In unhealthy situations, agency is an exertion of power where there is a perception that failure to comply would result in serious consequences instead of requests that allow for consent.

Fostering psychological safety

I hope that most people in positions of power (i.e., bosses) are not saying, “Do this or else you’re fired!” That is an explicit exertion of power where the boss’ agency is overriding an employee’s consent. However, there are plenty of environments that implicitly do the same thing. Cultures that prohibit psychological safety and have low trust inherently have fear. In these environments, people feel unable to say no, ask questions, or challenge directives. Fear is driven by a belief of social retribution (e.g., loss of connections in their network or exclusion from critical conversations) or career retribution (e.g., lack of opportunity for promotion, reduction or loss of salary increases, or getting fired). Freely given consent must be without threat or coercion. People in power and everyone who makes requests of others, therefore, must take great care to make space for others to give consent freely.

The responsibility doesn’t only lie with requestors. They have no way of knowing that a boundary has been crossed (or is being crossed). Your boundary, once made explicitly, becomes someone else’s responsibility. No one should be expected to read your mind or adhere to the same social cues as you do. If we go back to our earlier example of the hugger and non-hugger, let’s say the non-hugger in the first instance spoke up and said, “I’m not really a hugger, could we shake hands instead?” The hugger, hopefully, complied. The next time these two individuals meet, the hugger, having been informed of a boundary, has a responsibility to verify the boundary before making a move to hug again.

Sounds easy, right? For relatively low emotion situations it is easy. Until it becomes a habit, it is also awkward. When we’re talking about matters that could affect someone’s livelihood or job satisfaction, it’s much harder. We’re also not immune to past trauma or emotional upheaval from our lives that can also affect how we hear, see, and do things. It’s a lot to unpack.

There are a few ways to get better at managing this emotional turmoil. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series where we talk about the tools of curiosity and requests to learn more. In the meanwhile, here is a post that talks about setting boundaries up front: Simple and Easy Mentorship with a Mentoring Agreement.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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