There was a news item recently, where a young man had written a blog advising other men on how to attract the attention of women wearing earphones on public transport so they could have a chat with them. He suggested various methods and then advised, as a last resort, waving their hands in front of her face! This caused quite a stir on the media, and he was interviewed on Radio 4 with a woman. She explained that it may be, if his earlier attempts hadn’t worked, maybe the woman didn’t want to talk to him. The guy continued to make his point digging a deeper and deeper hole, never taking on board that this could even be a possibility!!
This example illustrates to me the challenge women have when it comes to setting boundaries. We are working against cultural assumptions about what is acceptable and what isn’t. We often sense, rightly, that drawing a clear line that is not to be crossed, will be met with surprise, even incredulity, so we think twice before insisting.
In business this is not a comfort zone we women can afford to dwell in. As we become more senior it is vital men understand what they can get away with. Think naughty boys! Their cultural context tells them that if they can getting away with it is fine! That’s what enables them to take risks, which a good entrepreneur must be able to do. Not all men sign up to that but they get a lot of encouragement to do that!
Doing it your way
I want to focus on how to get the message across in an unequivocal way that fits with who you are.
There are two key aspects of setting boundaries: saying no and initiating thought provoking dialogue. Sometimes you need to do the first before you focus on the second. So let's look at Saying No.
The most important thing about saying no is being clear about your intention. How do you really feel about setting this boundary? Given the cultural context, we are usually uncertain. If you know you need to do it and haven’t then you are probably ambivalent.
It will help if you discuss it with someone ahead of time, to uncover why it is you are so reluctant. Often it’s the old chestnut of not wanting to stand out or feeling you need permission before you take up space. A useful tip is, regardless of the language you use put into a short a phrase as possible the nub of what you want to say. It might be, I’m the boss, or this is not going to happen, or what is it about no you don’t understand!
Whatever it is you, need to feel energised by it, that phrase needs to make you feel more you! Now you have the energy to apply it!
The next step is to shorten it down to a sentence that encapsulates what you really want to say. “Don’t try that on with me Buddy” may not be appropriate but does maintains the energy level that will drive the communication. It may take a few iterations but as you try different phrases you will work out something that chimes with your feelings and gets the message across succinctly.
When you are happy with your phrase it you can than add music! The phase will have a natural rhythm which become more and more apparent as you repeat it. It is the meet of your statement. Then when you are faced with saying no and the other person comes up with excuses and distractions you can acknowledge all of them …. I appreciate you would prefer not to do it but ……….Repeat your phrase. And keep repeating it, whatever they say until they realise you are not going to back down!
Airport lounge show down
A recent example was when one of my clients who was dealing with a team member who had been criticising her behind her back because he, a much older senior manager, was in competition with her for a regional role. After many failed attempts to meet with him one to one, she finally caught up with him in an airport lounge. She had boiled down what she wanted to say to: “I know you are putting out negative rumours about me, I want it to stop” When she repeated this to herself before the meeting she felt clear and aligned.
The actual meeting was messy. He lost his temper and was very abusive. She was familiar with his modus operandi and whenever he paused for breath, she acknowledged what he had just said “ I realise you feel ……. and calmly repeated her statement not getting distracted by trying to justify herself, she had already done that in the run up to the meeting. Eventually her quiet clarity held sway against his, out of control hysterical drama! It's true when they say, it’s not a good idea to get emotional at work!
The Broken Record
This well tried technique is known as the broken record, for obvious reasons and works best if you role play it beforehand with a trusted partner, so you experience the moment when the other person crumples in the face of a well thought through unchanging response! This was exactly what happened with the ambitious team member. The result, there were no more rumours and she yes she did get the job!
Thought provoking dialogue
The other approach, thought provoking dialogue works better when managing upwards. As it suggests, it focuses on opening up a conversation where you are inviting the other person to consider another way of looking at things. In the presence of someone senior who can affect your prospects of promotion can be daunting. But you may want them to keep in mind that you are interested in a role it somehow hadn’t occurred to them to consider you for or that you had previously agreed with them, after 6 months acting up, there would a ratifying of that title and appropriate financial reward.
In this situation asking questions can be very effective. For example, in the case of a client faced with the first set of circumstances, in a calmer moment one to one, she asked her boss if he had realised she was ideally qualified for the position? In this case he was overcome with embarrassment as it hadn’t even occurred to him. She explained to him again her future career plans and why it was important to her and asked if there was anything either of them could do to stop it happening again.
This approach opened up a dialogue to be continued between them. There are times when the cultural context, understandably colours our outlook and we assume that we are victims of circumstance. However, if there weren’t men out there who were willing to champion women and their achievements there would be no senior women at all! So keep looking for the openings where you can put another point of view, encourage a frank exchange of views and make it clear what are not willing to accept
Setting boundaries is a vital part of seeing ourselves and being seen as potential executives who have the necessary gravitas to make things happen in an organisation. We can take it on or not.