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Setting boundaries works best when you are prepared to state them clearly, succinctly, and respectfully. Like most people, I don’t like being told what to do or that someone is unhappy with something I am doing or not doing. Rather than being upset when someone does react negatively to a boundary, you can be prepared to persist with a positive response. The following five steps can help you and others practice how to set boundaries effectively so that you can have more fun and fewer problems with people.

Step One: Pick a situation you want to practice.
Step Two: Write your statement without loaded words or long explanations.
Step Three: Be Prepared for Negative Reactions – Which ones are hard for you?
Step Four: Positive Responses – One size does NOT fit all.
Step Five: Practice out loud what to say and do in a powerful and respectful way.

Step One. Pick a situation you want to practice.

For example, dealing with someone being rude, thoughtless, or irresponsible.

  1. What kind of feelings do you have about this problem? Avoid saying, “You make me feel…” Instead say, “I feel…” Or “It concerns me that…” Don’t attack someone’s character or intentions.
  2. What is the specific behavior that you want to see change? Avoid loaded words like, “being a jerk.”
  3. What is the specific result you want? Try to say what you DO want rather than what you DON’T want. “Please speak in a calm voice” works better than “Don’t shout at me.” Be specific. “Please stop what you are doing to say ‘Hello’ when I arrive” works better than “Be nicer to me.”
  4. What is something you appreciate or understand about this person? Be genuine and generous.
  5. Use “And” instead of “But.” The word “but” often erases what was said before it.

Step Two. Write your statement without loaded words or long explanations

  • I understand how busy you are. AND I feel frustrated when you keep texting when we are talking. I would appreciate it greatly if you would stop texting and put your technology away when we are talking.
  • I appreciate your sense of humor. AND the rules here are that we don’t make uncomplimentary jokes about people’s appearances. Would you please make jokes about something else.
  • I know you mean well and are interested in what you see. AND it seems to me that people get uncomfortable when you stare at them. Please try to glance quickly and then look somewhere else.
  1. Start with a Bridge, which is a one-sentence caring connection: I appreciate all you do. OR, I know you care a lot. OR, I have a lot of respect for your work. OR, You are important to me. OR, It must be frustrating that things are so different. OR, I understand that you want to finish what you are doing.
  2. Continue with an I or ME Statement of your feeling or of the situation beginning with “and”: … AND I feel …. frustrated, uncomfortable, sad, annoyed, worried, upset, … OR, … AND the rules here are that…” OR, … AND, it seems to me that…” OR, …AND it concerns me that…”
  3. Next, make an objective and specific statement of the problem behavior: … when you______ (do or don’t do something.) OR, state the rule being violated, such as…we all share in the chores.
  4. Finally, in a clear and polite way, state the specific behavior you would like to see happenI would greatly appreciate it if you would… OR, Would you please …..?

Step Three. Be Prepared for Negative Reactions – Which ones are hard for you?

  1. Denial: “I never said that… That never happened. … You misunderstood me.”
  2. Minimizing: “You’re overreacting…. You are so sensitive…You are making a big deal out of nothing… Can’t you take a joke?”
  3. Counterattacking with emotional coercion including guilt or blame: “How can you say that to me? …Don’t you care about me? …You only think of yourself… You are making me so upset that I’ll get sick. … You’re jealous… You’re crazy … You’re defensive.”
  4. Denying your right to have a boundary: “This is just the way I am. Take it or leave it.” “I will do whatever I want. You can’t stop me. I’m your boss and you MUST do what I say. …JUST SHUT UP!”
  5. “Get off my backfake apology. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Done. ” (But not changing behavior.)
  6. Being so devastated that you feel tempted to take care of them: “I am so awful for saying that…. I am sure you won’t want anything to do with me anymore…. I am just too messed up to be with anyone…I hate myself for having done that.

Step Four. Positive Responses – One size does NOT fit all. Pick a response or combination of responses that is appropriate for the person and the situation.

  1. Acknowledge feelings. “You sound upset.” … “I appreciate your concern.”
  2. Express caring. “You are important to me.” “I am sorry I upset you. That was not my intention.”
  3. Restate your boundary: “This is important to me because I want to have better communication with you.” …. “Thank you for telling me your concern about my eating. I’ve heard you. Please don’t bring it up again.”
  4. Find a common ground. “Let’s see if we can find a solution that will meet both our needs… Perhaps we misunderstood each other …” I would like to talk when you feel ready to listen.” … “I remember this differently.” … “Let’s agree to disagree.”
  5. State a consequence that is realistic and balanced for this situation. “Stop or I will leave… Stop or you have to leave… Stop or I will report you…. This behavior needs to change, or our relationship will need to change.”
  6. Take a break and try again later. “I need some time to calm down in order to think more clearly.” …. “Let’s get some rest and try to talk when we are less tired.”
  7. Request clarification. “I am confused. What was your purpose was in making that comment?”
  8. Leave with care. If someone is very upset, you can leave as you say, “You are important to me. I care about you. We’ll talk later when we’ve had a chance to calm down.”
  9. Leave quietly and get help. If someone is threatening or violent or any time your personal safety is at risk, leaving is almost always the safest thing to do. Making threats about fighting back is dangerous.
  10. Write it down. Writing things down gets people’s attention and creates documentation if you need.
  11. As a last resort, know when and how to use physical self defense. If you are in danger and cannot get away safely, remember that you have the choice to defend yourself physically. As soon as you can, leave and get help.

Step Five: Practice out loud what to say and do in a powerful and respectful way.

  • Rehearse out loud using an assertive tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
  • Practice with a partner or in front of a mirror. If by yourself, go back and forth taking each part. If you are with a partner, tell this person who they are and which negative reaction you’d like them to use.
  • When learning, don’t take the hardest situation at first.
  • If practicing with a class, have people pick less personal examples or disguise details to protect their privacy. Ask that examples used are NOT about anyone in the group.

You: State your boundary

  • Begin with the Bridge
  • Continue with an AND “I feel or “It seems to me …” or …The rules here are that…”
  • State the problem focusing on behavior and not on intentions. E.g.: “When you.”

Your partner: Reply with the negative reaction you requested, sounding and looking like they mean it.

You: Use one or more positive responses to their negative reaction.

Your partner: End with a positive close. For example, “I’ll try… I’ll think about it .. Okay… I’m sorry.”

Keep practicing until you look and sound clear, respectful, and confident.

Switch with your partner so you each get a chance to practice each role.

Remember that HOW you sound and look when you set boundaries makes a big difference in how the other person might react.  Assertive Advocacy Communication Skills show how to use a respect and powerful tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language as well as choice of words.

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Published: February 23, 2021   |   Last Updated: March 15, 2021

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.