We all have needs. It could be the need for connection, belonging, validation, acknowledgment, safety, certainty…the list goes on. When it comes to our relationships, one of the only ways we can get our needs met is to express them. The problem is that many of us choose not to, and suffer. Why? There are many reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this article. Here I’ll focus on one reason related to our exploration of boundaries: the fear of disconnection.
Though I’ve always had strong professional boundaries, this hasn’t always been the case in my personal life. I would convince myself that it was somehow worthy or noble to sacrifice my wellbeing for the sake of others in order to be “a good friend” or “an understanding partner.” I feared that if I set boundaries, I’d risk upsetting or even losing people I cared for or admired. Instead, I’d quietly suppress my painful thoughts and feelings to “protect the relationship.” In truth, I wasn’t protecting these relationships, I was dooming them to fail.
By disregarding my boundaries, I was also disregarding my needs. Disregarding our needs in a relationship creates the conditions for these connections to become sources of continuous suffering.
Though others can hurt us, we’re responsible for our suffering. Suffering is a choice. That choice is allowing ourselves to be hurt over and over again. This is why suffering often leads to resentment, and resentment disintegrates the strongest bonds, even the ones connecting us with our sense of self.
Much of that suffering boils down to lack of communication.
For some the mere thought of communicating our needs with those who cross our boundaries can be alarming. Much of that fear comes from assuming that expressing our negative emotions will cause problems and result in conflict.
We avoid conflict because it tends to bring out the worst in us and others. It’s true, communicating from a reactive state should be avoided because it’s often unproductive. We say things we don’t mean, which can make things even worse, or outright break what was already fragile.
There are however ways for communicating challenging emotions without the need for conflict. One of these is Non-Violent Communication (NVC), developed by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg.
NVC is a proven method for resolving even the most intractable conflicts ranging from living rooms to boardrooms to war-zones. What does this have to do with boundaries?
Many of conflicts can be traced back to the violation of boundaries. Communicating from this place is difficult. NVC provides a clean and simple template to productively navigate challenging conversations called O.F.N.R.: Observe, Feel, Need, and Request. More so, O.F.N.R gives us a powerful mental model for us to think about our boundaries and needs. Let’s take a closer look.
What are you observing?
When telling someone they’ve crossed our boundaries, we tend to do so from a place of judgment. We express our evaluation of an experience, which is often very different from their evaluation of the experience, both of which are different from what actually happened.
Judgmental language is often met with defensiveness. Defense can quickly turn to offense, and soon any chance of progress is sent spinning farther out of reach. To communicate effectively, we must strive to remove judgment from our language. We can do this by stating as objectively as possible what we actually observed, rather than our interpretation of what we observed.
“You don’t care about this relationship!” This is a very subjective evaluation of a behavior, bursting with assumptions and judgment.
“What I observed was that we agreed you would do the dishes this week. I did the dishes five of seven days this week.” There is no judgment or accusation in this observation. Though it may not be delightful to hear, it’s objectively true and hard to argue with.
I’ve found the exercise of removing judgment from my language — not to mention my thinking — to be unnatural, difficult, and very illuminating. Sometimes it’s even helped me realize that there’s nothing to be upset about! Other times, it has allowed me to clarify something I’ve often neglected: what I’m actually feeling.
What are you feeling?
One of the most unintuitive things I’ve learned to be true, is that people are not responsible for our feelings. Read that again: other people are not responsible for our feelings. Just as we can’t control the thoughts of others, others can’t control our thoughts. It‘s our thoughts about what people are doing or not doing and saying or not saying that makes us feel what we feel.
When we blame others for how we feel, our well being is condemned to their uncontrollable whims. When we take responsibility for how we feel, our wellbeing is within our control. Taking responsibility for our feelings begins with trying to better understand what we’re feeling so we can accurately communicate our experience with others. For example:
“When I have to clean up when it’s not my turn, I feel alone.”
“When I hear unflattering jokes about my body, I feel sad, uncomfortable, and self-conscious.”
“When someone who works for me is late or unprepared for meetings, I feel distrust.”
“When I’m interrupted when I’m reading or journaling, I feel frustrated, disrespected, and trapped.”
Note how this language does not assign blame. It takes responsibility for our feelings. Even if others may not be able to relate to our interpretation of the events, feelings are largely universal. Everyone knows what it feels like to feel alone, frustrated, or trapped. If they can relate to what we’re feeling, we’ve opened a door.
What do you need?
At this point we’ve communicated what we’ve observed and how that makes us feel. We have yet to express what we actually need.
Just like when we expressed our feelings, being able to express what we need requires us to know what we need. If we don’t know, they can’t know. So before we communicate, we have to get some clarity about what we actually need. Easier said than done.
Toward that end, I’ve found journaling to be immensely helpful, especially before having difficult conversations. Through writing, I can explore the behavior and/or feelings I don’t want, to discover what I do want, what I need. Clarity through contrast.
I ask myself questions like:
“What do I need here?”
“What is the opposite of my negative feeling?”
“What is being threatened by the behavior/event I’ve observed?”
Let’s expand on the examples.
“When I have to clean when it’s not my turn, I feel unappreciated and lonely. I need to feel like I’m in a committed partnership where I’m appreciated.”
“When I hear unflattering jokes about my body, I feel sad, uncomfortable, and self-conscious. I need to feel desirable, comfortable, and confident with my partner.”
“When someone on our team is late or unprepared for meetings, I feel distrust. I need people I can count on.”
“When I’m interrupted when I’m reading or journaling, I feel frustrated, disrespected, and trapped. I need personal time.”
What is your request?
At this point, it may seem like we’ve said enough. They should be able to piece it together from here, right? Almost. There is one critical yet vulnerable element missing: asking for their help.
All we’ve communicated so far are concepts. Concepts are too open for interpretation. We don’t want to leave someone having to interpret how to honor our boundaries. That’s likely what caused the need for this communication in the first place. What’s missing is turning the conceptual into the practical.
That last part of our communication is to request a specific action that the other party/parties can agree to. To be clear, this is not a demand or an ultimatum. Demanding other people behave a certain way is the definition of unhealthy boundaries. No, this is a genuine request for their support.
Let’s complete our examples:
“What I observe is that we agreed that you would do the dishes this week. This week I did the dishes for five of seven days. When I have to clean when it’s not my turn, I feel unappreciated and lonely. I need to feel like I’m in a committed partnership and appreciated. Moving forward, would you be willing to honor our cleaning schedule starting today, or hire someone by the end of the week to take on your share?”
“What I heard was “my brother got all the looks, and I got all the heart.” When I hear unflattering jokes about my body, I feel sad, uncomfortable, and self-conscious. I need to feel desirable and confident with my partner. Would you be willing to stop making jokes about my appearance?”
“What I observed is that my project manager was late and unable to answer questions about timeline, budget, and staff in multiple client meetings. When someone on our team is late or unprepared for meetings, I feel distrust. I need people I can count on. Moving forward, would you be willing to be on time and prepared for our meetings starting Monday?”
“I’ve observed that when I’m reading or journaling before work, I’m often interrupted with questions and non-urgent conversation until I have to leave. When I can’t have that time to myself, I feel frustrated, disrespected, and trapped. I need regular personal time. Unless it’s an emergency, would you be willing to give me 8:30am-9:30am of uninterrupted “me” time?”
There is more going on than may meet the eye. Let’s take a closer look at what all these requests have in common they are:
- Actionable: You’re not providing a problem, but a solution to a situation, one that sets the other person up to win.
- Specific: Removing ambiguity leaves less room for misinterpretation. The requests create both clear actions and boundaries.
- Empowering: We’re asking for help. Providing a clear and simple way in which they can help us is often well received, because having the power to help others feels good.
- Requests: This frames the communication as a dialog rather than a demand. The response to these requests can be very telling in one of two ways: It can quickly expose those who are not willing to help, or keep their word. In other words, people who are not invested in maintaining the relationship. Other times, these requests can begin a dialog that surfaces information we were unaware of:
“I’m sorry. I have to take my son to dialysis at 7am on Tuesday and Wednesday. It makes it impossible for me to make it to the meetings on time. Can we reschedule the meetings an hour later on those two days?”
“I’m happy to give you 8:30am-9:30 Mon-Thursday, but can you look after the kids at that time Friday-Sun? I would also love to have time for myself for personal projects.”
“I only make jokes about the way you look because I thought you knew how handsome I think you are. The joke is funny to me because of how NOT true it is!”
I’ve experienced very similar unexpected insights while deploying N.V.C dialog in my life. It’s another reason the O.F.N.R template is so powerful: it not only gives you a format to express your boundaries, but it also models a way for others to express theirs! This brings us back to our original concern: the fear of disconnection.
Disconnection often results from the feeling of being misunderstood or unseen, trapped in our own experience. The power of skillful communication is that it enables others to see the world through our eyes, and for us to see through theirs. These shared experiences can create the deep connections we long for.
Language however is only one element to skillful communication, the other is time. When we communicate may be just as important as how we communicate. This is something we will explore in the next article. Stay tuned…