If we’re learning anything right now, it’s that we are all connected more deeply than we realized or wanted to admit. COVID-19 is shining a light onto all the ways we have long ignored or denied those connections, even with humans from across the globe. Our task going forward is to navigate how we show up in connection with others, and how we strengthen and deepen those connections. While it may sound counterintuitive, one crucial way to do so is by drawing clear and strong boundaries.
Boundaries Are Not about Separation
Before we dig in, we need to dispel a misconception about boundaries. They often get seen as barriers we set up between ourselves and others, something that walls us off, keeps us apart, and severs connections. We typically think of boundaries as a form of saying “no.” I’m not letting that person in my home. I’m not letting my kid eat that food. I’m blocking this person from my social media.
But really, boundaries are about saying yes with honesty, integrity, vulnerability, and authenticity.
Consider what the following boundaries say about how you will show up:
“I don’t take calls on evenings or weekends.”
The best time to connect with me is during business hours.
“I need two weeks, not one, to meet this deadline.”
Realistically, you will receive my best and most thorough work in this timeframe.
“I will pick up this project once I’ve recovered from my illness.”
I anticipate I will be back at full capacity once I am over this illness, and will focus on this project then.
“My availability for this request begins next month.”
My schedule is packed right now. Once it opens up I will be able to devote the time and energy your needs deserve.
“I require extended time for my disability accommodations.”
I need us to extend the deadline so that I can bring my best work and results. It will be helpful if you give me advance notice for upcoming projects, so I can effectively bring my best thinking to this project.
Notice that all these boundaries are simply clear statements of what is needed in order to show up fully and do your best work.
Boundaries are not limitations; they are invitations to work together in the most productive way.
Boundaries are not impediments to connection; they are a roadmap to how to connect fully.
Boundaries are how we exercise agency, telling others this is how I can say YES.
Most importantly, clear boundaries require vulnerability and honesty. When we express how, when, where, with whom, and why we do our best work, we invite others to see and engage with us authentically.
Your First and Most Important Connection
Before we can set clear boundaries to connect with others, we need to make sure we are connected with ourselves. We’re not socialized to think about our own needs so much as the needs of others. We need to practice deep listening with ourselves and get clear and courageous:
- What do I need to do my best work?
- What supports and what impedes my best work?
- What do I expect of others that will help me do my best work?
- What past difficulties have arisen due to lack of boundaries?
- Have I given myself full permission to hold my boundaries and present them to others?
Because boundaries are designed to support your best work, you may have experienced the most common result of unclear boundaries. Anger is often a sign that you need better boundaries. When expectations are clear, violations trigger conversations, negotiations, and/or consequences. When unclear, a broken boundary can leave you feeling vaguely disrupted, sometimes taken advantage of, and almost always resentful.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, our needs are constantly changing while our expectations are increasing. The general presumption is that under stay-at-home orders, we have more time, more flexibility, more capacity to ramp up our productivity. This is, of course, not true. Clear boundaries are even more important now to keep ourselves from being swept up in unrealistic expectations.
Leaders Go First
As the builders of trust, leaders are called upon to demonstrate vulnerability first. This idea goes against the commonplace of the stoic, unflappable leader. But modeling vulnerability is the key to connection. In doing so, you allow others to see you and give them permission to show up with vulnerability in return. And when you’re both authentic and transparent with each other, real connection is possible.
At Leverage to Lead, we often say, “Diversity is a fact. Equity and Inclusion are values.” (Hat tip to Alison Park at Blink Consulting.) In the same vein, connection is a fact. How we exercise our boundaries are values.
That is to say, your boundaries are never going to align perfectly with others’—that’s the reality of diversity. When misalignment happens, you’ll have a conversation about how to prioritize different needs at different times—equity. You’ll form a more creative solution that is better for all—inclusion.
The key is being in relationship with others so that any conflicts elicit more connection rather than competition. Finding alignment shouldn’t mean winners and losers; it should bring about more fruitful creativity and collaboration.
Boundaries Connect Us in a Crisis
Very recently, my daughter and I were on a walk, trying our best to socially distance. As we approached a narrow bridge, I saw two women walking toward us. When we crossed paths on the bridge, they didn’t make room for us. They kept walking side-by-side, taking up most of the bridge. “Can you please,” I said, “keep in mind 6 feet?”
One of the women looked at me with confusion. “We don’t need to keep 6 feet apart,” she explained, gesturing between herself and her companion. “We live together.”
“Not between you two,” I replied. “Between you and us.”
The women nodded and kept walking. As we circled the park path, my daughter and I approached them again. The second time, both women clearly went out of their way to distance from us. My 13-year-old daughter was mortified. I told her not to be embarrassed. “They stayed 6 feet apart,” I said, “because they see us now.
I tell this story to illustrate the deeply individual mindset we live with today. We don’t see how our actions impact others, even in these times, even in matters of life and death. To say “6 feet” to a stranger is to say, “your behavior impacts my health,” and “I can’t keep my family safe without you.” In speaking up, I wasn’t pushing this woman away. Rather, I was acknowledging our connection and defining how we need to safely connect right now.
Calling attention to my boundary was jarring for my daughter and these women. We’re not used to such directness. It can sound aggressive when really, it’s simply assertive and clear. Calling out boundaries can cause discomfort because it asks that you see what (or whom) you’ve previously chosen to overlook. Drawing boundaries is also risky. You open yourself up to rejection, refusal, or anger.
We have to take these risks, especially now. It’s never been more important to dispel the myth of individualism. Connection is a fact. How we show up with boundaries is how we value each other.
What boundaries will you draw more clearly going forward?
What do you need to get clear about with your own needs, capacities, and expectations?
How will you find deeper connection by showing up ready to say “yes” to the conditions of your best self and best work?
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If this article was sent to you by someone else and you would like to receive her articles directly in your inbox, please sign up here.
,MJ Mathis is an Associate Leadership Coach and Facilitator at ,Leverage to Lead. She facilitates adult learning in a way that centers our humanity and creates opportunities for building relationships that foster more positive and productive work environments.