What to Say When People Break Boundaries
What to Say When People Break Boundaries
By Steve Willis
I recently built and moved into my dream home. My partner’s daughter has four very unruly children who do not respect my boundaries. How do I have the crucial conversation I need to have, so both my partner and his daughter understand that the children need to be taught to respect others and demonstrate good manners in the homes of other people?
Dear Dream Weaver,
When I left home to live on my own, I never realized that choosing to share living space with others would bring me face-to-face with so many different crucial conversations. And it didn’t matter if we had known each other previously or not. The shared space seemed to be the biggest factor in whether issues became crucial.
In your situation, I’d recommend you focus on two crucial conversations meta-skills: notice and act.
It sounds like you are at the nexus of several different conversations and therein lies the challenge. Since the conversations are related, there’s a huge temptation to approach them as if they were the same conversation when they are, in reality, distinct and different. From my reading of your situation, I count at least two separate issues that need attention and focus. It sounds like you have concerns that need to be discussed with the kids who are violating boundaries. And another, separate conversation with your partner about response—or in this case, lack of response —to the kids’ behavior.
Since both are related to the undesirable behavior, people are tempted to bring everybody into one room and hash it out, or only talk to your partner about the kids’ behavior. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner first so you can reaffirm, establish, or re-negotiate how you’ll work together on issues like these.
Much of what partners find really troublesome is tied to not feeling supported by or aligned with each other when trying to address difficult issues. So, in essence, you now have two problems you’re trying to solve simultaneously: You’re unhappy about the kids’ behavior and also starting to feel an increasing frustration that your partner isn’t supporting you like you’d expect him or her to. You’ll find that as you’re able to address these two issues separately, they will be much easier to work through than if you bundle them.
So, handle them one at a time and I’d recommend that you work on the one with your partner first. Once you’ve sorted things out with your partner, you can then jointly (being the key word here) address the kids’ behavior.
In this case, the skills for holding the conversation are the same for both topics you want to discuss. It isn’t always the case that you’d need the same skills, but this time it happens to be. The two sets of skills I’d focus on here would be Make It Safe and STATE my Path.
Make it safe
This is where you take the time to ensure that your loved ones know and understand that they are indeed loved ones. It’s really easy in this type of discussion to lose sight of this step. When this happens, people start telling themselves stories about you, why you’re bringing the issue up and even what it means. You can head off a lot of these problems by Making It Safe. In practice, this means that you actively reinforce your purpose for bringing up the issue throughout the conversation (i.e., if talking with the kids, then “catching a problem before it gets out of hand,” or, if talking with your partner, then “making sure we work together to address concerns,”). When you notice your partner or the kids becoming defensive, it’s great to pause and make sure they know that while you don’t love the behavior being exhibited, you do love them. Contrasting is a great skill to use here to help people see what you do and don’t want. In essence, you don’t want your relationship with them to go away, just the distracting behavior.
STATE My Path
Now onto the “open your mouth and let the words do the work” part. While the skill set here provides a nice structure to this, it does not mean that it will be easy—just possible. So, in order to get your words working for you, approach these conversations with STATE: Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing.
Usually, people use STATE to tell other people what they’re noticing about them. I’d encourage you to use it to tell your loved ones about you. People often use STATE as if they are building a lawsuit against the other person: “These are the facts, and therefore you must accept conclusion Y!” Instead, you want your loved ones to understand how you’ve come to the conclusions you’ve come to.
Let me suggest a framework script to illustrate this point. “I’d like to talk with you about some things that I’ve noticed over the last little while. I have some observations that I’d like to share with you and some of the conclusions I’m starting to draw, and then I’d be really interested in hearing your perspective.” At this point, pause to check for safety, and when you feel you can, proceed with a statement like, “I’ve noticed that (insert a couple of observations here). And you may not be fully aware of this, but when I see these things it represents a violation of (insert your tentative conclusions here). So I wanted to talk with you to get your take on it.” At this point, you’ll want to reassess safety to ensure the conversation continues in a healthy and productive tone.
Like I said, this doesn’t take the angst out of the conversation, but hopefully provides some guidance for how to more successfully navigate this tough conversation.
Best of luck,