Jesse looked awful. He’d entered today’s coaching session looking miserable. His color was slightly gray. The sacks under his eyes were bulging.
He dropped into a chair in our meeting room. We sat in silence a long time. He wasn’t suffering. He was puzzling. Finally, as if arguing with himself, he said, “But I have to!”
He shifted his gaze to me and said, “I have to start setting some boundaries.”
Since the beginning of our coaching, Jesse and I had been talking about setting boundaries. At first this focused on his fear of saying no. Jesse took on work he should have delegated. He agreed to meetings he didn’t have time for. He accepted deadlines or budgets that were not to his advantage, so his team was often disappointed with him. His inability to set boundaries at work created painful stressors in his home life, where he was also inept at saying no.
Jesse and I imagined saying no. We imagined saying no to his boss, which made him physically queasy. We imagined saying no to a colleague or direct report. Or his family. Or anyone. Jesse was often speechless. Saying no was such a struggle for Jesse that words often failed him. He had lost his voice.
Early in our discussions he wondered whether saying ‘no’ was the same thing as setting boundaries. If he learned to say no, would that mean he’d be setting boundaries?
I asked him what he thought.
“I think so,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I think they can be,” I agreed. “I pick a little bone with the image that ‘setting boundaries’ conjures, but, in essence, yes, I think setting a boundary often requires you to say no.”
“What’s the bone you’re picking?” he asked. An accomplished people pleaser, he was always interested in other people’s opinions.
“In my mind, when I picture setting a boundary, I imagine putting up a little wall or barrier. It’s a way of making something safe. It says, ‘This over here is mine. No, you can’t have it. Yours is over there. Let’s stay separate.’ Often that is exactly what’s called for when you need to set a boundary. But there are other times I think what’s called for is speaking up, naming whatever it is you want to happen, with no barrier around it at all.”
“Why wouldn’t it be a boundary?”
“Let’s suppose what I really want is to go see that new Pixar movie Saturday night but you want to go back to that jazz bar. It might be really hard for me to tell you what I want. Is that setting a boundary? I don’t think so. But it might involve me saying no. Or speaking up. Or at least giving voice to what I want.”
Jesse and I agreed that “saying no,” “setting boundaries,” “having a voice” and “speaking up” were all interconnected, part of the same skill set.
Clarifying your “want”
Now Jesse sat in front of me telling himself he had to start setting boundaries. He focused on a spot across the room as if he had something to tell it, and said, “And I know where I want to start. Penny. I’ve been wanting to say no to her forever.”
“And Penny is . . . ?” I asked.
He lowered his chin and gave an angry smile. “Penny is one of the few people I still talk to from high school. We talk maybe three times a year. For years now, when we talk, Penny will ask me something – about one of my kids, let’s say – and I get maybe two sentences into telling her about my kid, and suddenly we’re talking about her again. It’s like I’m supposed to be her audience or something. There’s never room for me. And I’m tired of it.”
“So you’ll practice saying no with Penny?”
“I will!” he said energetically. He actually looked a little better.
“What do you want her to hear from you?” I asked.
“That if we’re going to catch up, then we’re BOTH going to catch up. It can’t be all about her.”
“Sounds clear to me,” I said. “Will you say it just like that? ‘I want us both to have a turn. It can’t be all about you’?”
“Oh, my god, are you kidding, no! You know I wouldn’t ever say anything like that!”
“No, I didn’t know. Because I think you could say something like that. What do you imagine saying to her instead?”
He suddenly looked worried. “Well, I don’t know! It depends on a lot of things!”
I smiled, “Jesse, let’s practice. Look, I completely understand how you feel. I used to be the worst at having a voice.”
My paralyzed voice
“In what way?” he asked.
“Ha! So many to choose from! OK, here’s a story that I think is a jaw dropping example of my inability to have even the teensiest voice.”
I took a breath. “When my oldest daughter was about 16 – that’s about fifteen years ago. I was a lot younger then. Anyway, when she was about sixteen, she was pushing every rule her mom and I set. Because we were both super nice people, and neither of us had much of a voice, she just ignored us. She rolled right over us.
“One day she’s walking ahead of me in the house, then she stops and turns around … and she’s pierced her nose! It’s an awful piercing. The stud is sticking part way out and it looks a little enflamed. But it’s a piercing. And that’s against the rules. And she knows it’s against the rules.
“I see this stud in her nose and I blurt out, ‘You pierced your nose!’ And cool as a cucumber, without a blink, without raising her voice, she looks right at me and said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ She looks right at me and tells me I am not seeing what I know I’m seeing. Talk about gaslighting!
“So what did I do? Nothing! I was completely paralyzed. I had no idea what to say. My will collapsed. I was frozen. I had no voice. So I’ve been where you are, Jesse, and I think I know how it feels.”
“You make it sound like it would be different today?”
“Oh, it would!” I said. “My fear of saying no seemed a pretty selfish thing to hold onto compared with trying to be the best parent for my daughter. I was really motivated to get my voice back.”
“What’s actually different?” he asked, clearly hoping I could lay out some schematic for him to follow.
Two actions for boundaries
I thought a second, seeing if I could sort my ideas into parts.
I said, “These days, when I want to set boundaries, I make sure I do two things. First, I take a time out. If the situation feels at all difficult, that means there’s emotion in it. And if there’s emotion in it, it’s better to wait and let my system settle down a little. If I’m feeling upset, I don’t have to have a difficult conversation. It’ll be a lot easier to ask for what I want if the storm inside me is quiet.”
“Wouldn’t I love not feeling sick to my stomach all the time!” he said.
“I wonder if waiting a little would help,” I suggested.
“Not for me. For me, waiting makes everything worse because I can’t stop thinking about it all, over and over and over. That’s why I’m not sleeping!” he said. “So what’s number two that you’d do different?”
“Ah. No stories. When I want my voice to get heard, I talk in headlines. No stories. No history. No explanation. No excuses. No apologies. Just say what I’m asking for. State what I want. How I see the issue. What’s my next step?”
“That sounds really harsh. Like drill sergeant harsh.”
I considered that. “I’m not trying to be harsh,” I said. “I’m trying to avoid having my fear get me talking. Because if I start explaining, my ‘want’ is going to get buried in verbal pillows and no one will really understand what I’m asking for. Far from being harsh, I’m just trying to be clear.”
I went on. “Plus, when I’m really clear on what I want, that headline can keep me grounded if the other person gets upset.”
He thought. “Take time and no stories. The ‘no stories’ part is going to be impossible for me. When I try to speak up, I’m like you. I get so anxious I can’t shut up. I talk a thousand words a minute.”
I nodded in understanding.
He went on. “But the ‘take time’ part – I think that’s the opposite of what I should be doing. If I take time, I’ll never do it.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, of course. So what would work for you instead?” I asked.
Two more actions for boundaries
“For me, I think I need to stop worrying, then just do it.”
“Is that two different things?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I have to stop worrying so I can figure out what I want. I never really even ask myself that question because I’m so busy worrying about everybody else. If I could stop worrying, I bet I could figure out what I really want.”
“Good point,” I said. “It’s hard to say what you want if you don’t know what you want.”
He laughed. “Maybe I’m not speaking up to others because I’m not speaking up to myself!”
I laughed, too. “Maybe!”
He said, “Then just do it.” He shook his head as if witnessing some gruesome scene. “Ugh! It’s never going to happen!”
“Can we practice, Jesse?” I asked. “Think about Penny. The next time you talk with her, what would you like to be different?”
Almost without thinking he said, “I want her to be interested. If she’s not interested, then let’s not waste the time.”
“It sounds like she’s plenty interested … if the issues are hers.”
“Exactly!” he said with a rueful chuckle. “But is it too much to ask for her to show a little interest in me now and then?”
“So what would this sound like, Jesse? If I were Penny, what would you want me to hear?”
“Well, Penny,” he said, “I haven’t enjoyed our last couple conversations so much because they don’t feel very equal.”
And that is almost exactly how he led off his conversation with Penny. He said they talked honestly about their friendship. It ended up being very tender for both of them.
At work, Jesse took tentative steps towards boundary setting. He observed himself often talking too much. Self-editing to headlines was hard. But the few times he did it, he thought the conversations went better. He saw that chipping away at his fear of saying no was allowing him to approach The Look & Sound of Leadership.