Compassionate People Have the Best Boundaries

In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown shares a profound insight.  She states, “very early on in my work I had discovered that the most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. It surprised me at the time, but now I get it. They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need and they don’t put up with a lot of crap. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
In my work as a coach, I have frequently heard people describe their frustrations with doing things they didn’t want to do, shouldn’t have to do and downright resented.  And most of the time, they did not share their feelings or experience with the person who they saw as the source of that frustration.
Situations included having to pick up other people’s shifts, finish their unfinished work, do assignments, meetings and trips that others did not want to do. And my coachees gritted their teeth, smiled on the surface, and did it.  When they shared their stories with me they were angry, hurt, resentful, enraged…and as Brené Brown describes, self-righteous. And it was eating at them. They were indignant.
So how do people get into these binds?  Brown talks about mindset differences.  She discusses the difference in belief that “people are doing the best they can,” versus “people aren’t doing their best.” She claims that it is not the situation, but our beliefs and thoughts about what is happening that drives our response.
I have a colleague who frequently cancels meetings, postponing our ability to get work done. She always has great reasons for the cancellations and I do believe they are true.  However, I am unbelievably frustrated because I am gridlocked on a project without her. Have I told her?  How could I? Her explanations each time are real, meaningful and serious…but, our relationship is crumbling right along with the project.  I am starting to see her as flaky, not-to-be-trusted.  I am looking for work-arounds to remove her from the project to get it done.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? But what is the point of confronting her when her reasons are so justified?
The most critical part of a relationship, whether work or personal, is trust.  I can self-righteously proclaim that she is violating my trust by not following through with her commitments.  But on the other side, I am violating her trust by not telling her what I need.
My self-righteousness suggests that “she should know, shouldn’t she? She just doesn’t care, so why bother?”  What is really happening here?  I am assuming she is not doing the best she can. I have lowered my opinion of her.
I am an equal co-partner in destroying the relationship and not getting the best for our project. What would happen if I assume good intent? What would happen if I share how I am feeling about the project and her involvement? What would happen if I tell her what I need? Perhaps a beginning could sound something like this. . .
“I know you have had a lot of things come up that have interfered with getting this work done. I respect that you have had different priorities. However, I am really frustrated because I cannot continue my work without your input.  I need to know if you are in or if I should develop a different plan to get this done. If you are in, I need to have a meeting with you this week. I will work with your schedule, but if you cancel again, I am going to have to work on it independently.”
Is the language too harsh? Will I lose our relationship? Well, I ask, do we have one now?  What might she say? How might this impact my sense of self if I regain a way forward?
Generally, we avoid conversations like the one above because we are uncomfortable with being so direct.  We hint, make side comments, vent with other people and luxuriate in our own self-righteous indignation…or we wait until they really cross the line and blow up!  All to avoid having an honest, uncomfortable conversation.
Patrick Lencioni believes that trust is fundamental to high functioning teams. He talks about trust as being deeper than just doing what we say we will do, he talks about vulnerability (and so does Brown, a lot!) – a willingness to be open, honest and mistaken.  Owning how I am impacted by other people is a very vulnerable place to be…owning resentment, frustration, discomfort.  But it is the way forward to being more effective as an individual and as a leader.
We have to take the risk.  So how do we do it? It takes courage and SCILLSS. When we are trying something new or different, having a structure can help us succeed.  Here is a quick summary of some steps that can guide us until these conversations become second nature.
1.  S: Self-assessment
How am I feeling? Can you identify what you are feeling…can you get past mad – mad is often a default that covers more uncomfortable feelings like hurt, disrespected, left out.
What am I telling myself? Remember mindset differences? This is the most critical part of the process because our feelings are generated from our thoughts. If I think they should know better, I react one way. If I think they are doing the best they can, I open up possibilities to different reactions.
What else could be going on? Explore other possibilities – why else might they be acting/doing what they are doing?
2. C: Cue to invite conversation
If we are taking the risk of having an uncomfortable conversation, let the other person know what is going on.  “I’d like to discuss something with you if you have a minute… Is this a good time?”Is this a good place?
3. I: Use I-messages
How we describe our concern will impact their response.  Be careful of judgmental or accusatory words that come out of what we are telling ourselves. As much as possible be objective and descriptive.  You might want to write down a few notes for this step.
When you … (objective, behavioral – watch for judgments)
I feel… (use a feeling word – avoid saying “that you…” after “feel”) This is where you get really vulnerable – how are you experiencing what is happening…
Because… (how does this impact me, the work environment or product, our customers/clients?)
4. L: Listen to response and paraphrase what you have heard
Remember, this is about relationship and building trust. Take time for the other person to respond and share how they see the situation. Then explain more of your point of view if needed.
5. L: Listen some more to response and paraphrase until both perspectives are understood.
6. S: Seek a solution that works for both/all parties involved.
Now you get to figure out how to change from a frustrating situation to a productive solution.  Can you see how this can build trust?
Ask, “how can we solve this?”
Brainstorm possible strategies
Write down possibilities
All possibilities – no commentary
Then identify those that would help and both can agree to
7. S: See if it works
We frequently forget this step.  It is possible that the solution or agreement you came up with will not work or only partially address the situation. You might need to revisit things to get it right.  Additionally, change takes conscious and mindful effort. Think of times you tried to change a personal behavior (think diet, exercise or flossing…). How often do we say we’ll do it, and then forget about it?  Setting a time to check back holds us all accountable. It will make a difference in your results. Really!!!
Agree to try a solution for a certain amount of time
Set a time to check back to see if it is working or what needs to be fine tuned
What do you think?  I would love to know if you have taken the risk and tried to have this kind of conversation.  How did it go?  Being a leader means stepping up, being honest, building trust and holding ourselves and others accountable; in essence, being compassionate with strong boundaries. Good luck!
Brown, B. (2015-08-25). Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution (Kindle Locations 1700-1707). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Lencioni, Patrick M. (2012-03-14). The Advantage, Enhanced Edition: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (J-B Lencioni Series) (p. 27). Wiley. Kindle Edition.