Do you have trouble setting boundaries? Or enforcing them once you set them?

If so, you’re certainly not alone!

Boundary setting is something I work on a lot with my clients.

It can seem scary. And it can feel hard. But here’s the thing:

No one will set boundaries for you, but most people will respect them when you set them for yourself.

And if they don’t, that’s OK, too. You can hold your ground, and do so in a way that doesn’t make you feel like a jerk, and doesn’t put you in a bad light.

Can I teach you a trick?

One of the best ways to set boundaries and still be perceived as someone who gets sh*t done is to phrase things using positive language instead of negative language.

Tell people what you can do, not what you can’t.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of saying: “You won’t be able to reach me between 5pm and 8am.” you can say “I’m available to you anytime between 8am and 5pm.”
  • Instead of saying “I don’t check email on the weekend.” you can say “I’m very responsive to email during normal business hours.”
  • Instead of saying “I can’t take meetings after 5pm.” you can say “The best time to meet with me is before 5pm”.
  • Instead of saying “I’m not a morning person; please don’t talk to me before 10am.” you can say “I’m sharpest between 11am and 3pm; let’s chat then you so you can get me at my best.”

It’s actually a fairly simple tweak to your language.

But it makes a HUGE difference.

Are there any caveats to this?

Yes, there are.

While I’ve found that using positive language to set boundaries always always works better than negative language, there are a couple of factors you may want to consider before diving, head first, into boundary setting.

  • Your work culture

There are some work cultures where the expectation is truly that you are available all day, every day. And if you try to set any boundaries, it will negatively impact your success at that company. You know the truth of your culture at work better than I do and you should act accordingly.

If your work culture does not allow success and boundaries to occur together, then the question you may need to be asking is whether you’re OK with that, or whether you’d be better off elsewhere.

But before you make that choice, I want you to think about whether the “always on” expectations are actually real at your company, or whether these are expectations you’re putting on yourself.

  • Your perceived identity

If you are part of (or perceived as part of) a marginalized or non-dominant group (i.e. anyone other than a white man if you’re in the US), there may be greater repercussions for setting boundaries or pushing back at work.  It’s important to assess and understand the risks inherent to your specific situation. And if you feel like there are more negative repercussions for those who attempt to set boundaries who look like you, then you may also want to consider if this is a place you really want to stay. I very much wish I didn’t need to include this caveat. But bias is real and I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

What’s your favorite boundary-setting phrase?