Effective Feedback and Boundary-Setting: A Guide to Navigating Tough Conversations

Published: 29 Apr 2024

Author: Dean Wolfers

Navigating the delicate art of providing feedback and setting boundaries can often feel like walking a tightrope. Despite almost two decades of helping clients establish healthy boundaries, I occasionally find myself grappling with the same challenges. Accepting that this is a normal part of personal and professional growth can be reassuring. A strategy that has recently resonated with me comes from Brené Brown’s philosophy: “Clear is kind.”

Being clear, though sometimes tough, is ultimately a kind gesture. Brown champions the notion that while all emotions are valid, not all behaviors are acceptable. This mindset can shift our perspective, allowing us to approach boundary-setting not as a confrontation but as a necessary step in defining what behaviors we can tolerate.

Implementing the Traffic Light System for Boundary-Setting

One effective method for establishing boundaries without escalation is the traffic light system, which I adapted from a recent discussion on the We Can Do Hard Things podcast, hosted by Glennon Doyle with guest Melissa Urban. This system categorizes responses into green, amber, and red, based on the severity and frequency of the boundary violations.

Green: Gentle Reminders

  • “It seems there was a mix-up with the payment for ___. Could you please check your records and confirm?”
  • “When you arrive without notice, I’m often in the middle of something, which might make you feel unwelcome. A heads-up would help me ensure you’re greeted properly. Could we try that next time?”
  • “I felt overlooked when __ happened. I’m sure that wasn’t your intent, and it would mean a lot if we could address this going forward. What do you think?”

Amber: Firmer Warnings

  • “I still haven’t seen the payment for ____. Please be aware that the invoice terms include a late payment fee, which will now apply.”
  • “I missed you earlier because I didn’t get enough notice to prepare. Let’s coordinate better in the future to avoid this.”
  • “It’s happened again, and while I care about you deeply, I need to step back for my own wellbeing.”

Red: Definitive Actions

  • “Further delay in payment will result in me contacting a debt recovery service as outlined in our agreement.”
  • “I cannot allow last-minute demands to disrupt my schedule. We need to find a better way to manage these situations.”
  • “Since repeated attempts to address this issue haven’t led to change, I must limit our interactions to ensure my own peace of mind.”

Applying This to Your Life

Consider a current personal or professional challenge where you need to set a boundary. Reflect on your usual approach—are you quick to escalate to a ‘red’ response? Could you start with a ‘green’ approach instead, escalating only if necessary? This method focuses more on the consequences of actions rather than attempting to control the other person, facilitating a healthier dynamic.

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