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

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed boundaries in depth. As a refresher, a boundary is the line of demarcation between one person’s consent and another’s agency. This article will be covering curiosity and requests. The two things, used together, help us manage boundaries and navigate through other’s boundaries.

Practicing curiosity

I’m going to borrow from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model and look first at what is happening in our minds that drives actions. In this approach to therapy, there is a model called the Thought-Emotion-Action (TEA) Triangle. The model starts with some event that initiates a thought, the thought leads to an emotion, and that emotion leads to action. Breaking it down, here’s a possible TEA in action for the example we used in Part 1 of a hugger initiating a hug with someone who doesn’t like them:

Event: Hugger leans in for a hug

Thought: This person is so rude

Emotion: Shock, uncomfortable, frustrated

Action: Accepts the hug but now avoids the hugger

Meanwhile, the hugger has their own TEA loop going. Frequently, we have no awareness of the thought or emotion that creates our behavior.  Maybe this isn’t true for hugging since it’s probably easy to tell if hugs bother us. Let’s look at another example.

Event: My boss and I are having a one on one meeting, and he or she says, “I really need you to manage this situation.”

Thought: If I don’t do this, I will fail my boss, and there could be repercussions.

Emotion: anxious, overwhelmed, worried.

Action: I pressure my team to work on this even when there’s no evidence it is a top priority for the team or the company. The team has it’s own TEA loop and reacts to the new pressure from the employee in this situation.

That has a much heavier feel. There are many ways one could shift the internal loop. Curiosity is the first place to break the thought/emotion pattern.

Stop, drop, and roll

Stop, drop, and roll is a fire safety technique taught to children so they know what to do should they ever have flames on their body. It means: Stop, fall to the ground, and roll around until the fire is out. When we have thoughts that create heavy emotions, it is just as terrifying for our brain as if we are on fire. The amygdala in our brain is responsible for this and, unfortunately, it doesn’t distinguish between little and big threats nor does it differentiate between real and imagined threats. We can’t achieve curiosity while our amygdala is active. We can metaphorically employ the same safety technique to manage reactive thoughts:

Stop: Stop and notice the emotion happening and the thought that created the emotion.*
Drop: Drop the conversation. Ask for space or time to think if you need it. Be sure to commit to a time to return to the discussion. (Note: with practice, you may be able to pivot without having to take space. Do what’s right for you in your situation.)
Roll: Roll with the reaction by taking a walk, escaping the fear, journaling, or whatever you need to calm your activated amygdala.

*A note about noticing emotions as they happen. This can be difficult to do at the moment. There’s not much solid advice on it either. Take some time, when you’re not in the moment, to reflect on what indicates that you need a break. It could be a physical feeling of shaking or sweating. Alternatively, it could be a specific type of emotion like anger. Maybe it’s noticing a desire to run away. After you have an idea of what your body and feelings do to notify you, then work on seeing at the moment.

Get curious about you

Once you’ve taken the space you need, it’s time to reflect. There are three things you’re looking for when you reflect:

  1. What were the observable facts?
  2. What story did I make up around those facts?
  3. What emotion came to the surface?

If we go back to our hugging example, the only observable fact by the non-hugger would be, “the hugger opened their arms and moved in to hug me.” Anything that came up after the action would have been judgment or conjecture on the part of the non-hugger. It is the story that brings forward emotions. If the story was, “They’re so uncouth, hugging is a huge social faux pas.” What emotion does that bring up for you? I know for me, that story causes me to feel embarrassed for them and uncomfortable. The action I would take would be driven by that emotion. This is just the tip of the iceberg in curiosity though. Go deeper, figure out why this is the story you went to and what this is telling you about yourself.

Now, let’s try our boss/employee example again. The only observable fact is that the boss said, “I really need you to manage this situation.” The inner dialogue we used in the example is, “If I don’t do this, I will fail my boss, and there could be repercussions.” There’s a lot of heavy emotion that comes up in that in the form of fear and anxiety. Go deeper. What made this your go-to dialogue? Have you given the right weight to the power dynamic of the boss/employee? Are you a people pleaser? Is this okay with you? There are many questions you can ask yourself. The purpose of these questions is to become aware of your reactions, why they exist, and then make good requests or inquiry (which we’ll cover later in this post).

Get curious about them

After you’ve sorted out your inner voice, it’s time to get curious about the other person. I recommend first taking the time to identify other stories about the other person to open your mind to possibilities and to raise your internal awareness about how much you don’t already know. If we look at hugging, here are some other stories that could be true of the hugger:

  • They were raised in a more affectionate family
  • They come from a culture where greetings are done with more physical contact
  • They aren’t aware of your discomfort or boundaries

Lots of other stories allow us to empathize with the other person. If we look at the situation with the boss, we could see these possibilities:

  • They used imprecise language and didn’t mean the words as received
  • They are getting external pressures
  • They trust the employee and are hoping that the work the employee did before can be exhibited on this body of work
  • They aren’t aware of the power imbalance or the emotional state of the employee

With that perspective in mind, it’s easier to grapple with the habitual stories that arise in our thoughts. There will always be some situations where you never get to validate or resolve your assumptions with others. Work does not have to be one of those places! Challenging our programmed responses to people ultimately builds empathy which is a key to deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Closing the curiosity loop

Once you’ve adjusted your mindset to the possibility that there could be truths other than the one you see, the very best option is to ask. When you are ready to engage in the conversation again (or just after you’ve managed your emotional reaction), that’s the time to ask good questions that help you understand the motivations, thought patterns, and feelings of the other individual.

Asking curious questions is all about asking open-ended questions. Try not to lead them down the path you believe to be true. Lean heavily on questions that start with “what” or “how” Specifically, avoid questions that start with “why”. “Why” typically moves a person into defensiveness psychologically, and we’re trying to reduce the amygdala reactions.

This is also an excellent time to share your inner reactions, emotions, and thoughts. Share this from a place of communicating impact. Point at the behavior that created the reaction, not at the person; avoid blame and judgment in your statements. This is how we teach others to interact with us in a kind and collaborative way.

Making requests

The last step, once you’ve both discussed your thoughts and reactions, is to ask for things to change. The result should be an explicit agreement about behavior. The best model I’ve found for making requests comes from Nonviolent Communication. This model states that requests must have three things to be counted as a request:

  1. They’re stated in terms of clear, positive, concrete action, and they avoid asking someone to refrain from doing something.
  2. They’re specific enough to be doable in the present.
  3. They aren’t demands: the other person can say “no” without fear of retribution.

Let’s go back to our hugging scenario a talk through what this might look through instead. The hugger goes in for a hug (observable fact). The non-hugger is resistant to this and stops the hug saying, “I’m not comfortable hugging. Would you be willing to shake hands instead?” The hugger at this point could do several things but would, hopefully, apologize for assuming hugs were okay and move to shake hands. The hugger might also make their own request: “Would you let me know if this boundary ever changes?” Now they have an agreement in favor of shaking hands and an agreement to revisit if it ever changes.

There are two things to notice in this example. First, the requests also started with “would”. “Would” is used in favor of “could” because the latter questions the other person’s capability. The former leaves room for negotiation and leaves room for the other person to communicate if they can or can’t meet the request.

Let’s take another look at our boss/employee example:

Boss: I really need you to manage this situation.

Employee: Manages the thought-emotion-action cycle and takes a deep breath. I’m feeling a little anxious about that as I have little control over the outcome. What’s driving your focus on this? (Curiosity)

Boss: I didn’t mean for you to feel anxious. I’m sorry my wording was imprecise and lacked some context. My boss is really worried about the project timelines because this is critical for other downstream work.

Employee: I didn’t realize your boss was focusing on this project. Would it be sufficient if I started looping them in on the status reports? Or would it be better if I reached out to them to assuage their concerns? (Request)

Boss: I think it would be best if you meet with my boss in person first. What if you sent an email explaining why you’re adding them to the status reports and offer face-time if they want it? Would that work for you? (Negotiation)

Employee: Yes, I can do that. It also sounds like you’re feeling a little stressed about your boss’ anxiety. Would you like to be copied on the emails? (Empathy and Request)

Boss: Thank you for noticing that. Yes, that would be a big help.

I know this conversation reads as too good to be true. This is an example from my experience as an employee. I’m not always this good at it. This style of communication is like a muscle, it must be worked and practiced continually to stay in good shape. However, this example sticks out for me because it was the first time I distinctly tried implementing it. The conversation was so smooth that I was startled by it. I have since implemented it in many conversations. Admittedly, it works better in high emotion situations for me to take time and come back to the discussion. Nonetheless, if you are skeptical, I recommend trying it before you knock it.

The other thing to note from this example is that it resulted in a clear, positive, and concrete action. There were high empathy and no blaming language, just two people negotiating a path forward that meets everyone’s needs at that moment. From experience, I can tell you that the action we agreed on wasn’t sufficient. Further negotiation and discussion were required. The key to requests is accepting negotiation as part of the process. The path forward will change based on the needs of the individuals as they arise.

Have you tried any of these techniques before? Did they work for you? Please leave us some lines in the comments!

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