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I Set Boundaries, They Were Crossed, Now What?

Dear Joseph,

My house is the place family chooses to gather for the holiday. This Thanksgiving I wanted to make sure everyone was safe so I told them we would not be having a family gathering. I mentioned that I would feel terrible if anyone caught Covid-19 from exposure at my house. The family showed up anyway, each with a reason why it was okay for them to come. How do you lovingly shut the door to uninvited guests who are putting you at risk?

Signed,
No, Thank You

Dear No, Thank You,

Don’t take this as a criticism. Just join with me for a moment in marveling at your question. First of all, marvel that you’re even asking this question. The answer is patently obvious. What’s amazing is the moral gymnastics we do in our minds that make the answer seem complicated.

Isn’t it ironic that when others violate our boundaries, many of us feel responsible for coddling them? I’m asking you to marvel for a moment so you can get the proper bearings for what I will advise.

Why is it that when you clearly told your relative (let’s call him Bob) not to come to Thanksgiving dinner, and here he is standing on the doorstep, that the emotions you feel are uncertainty, fear, and responsibility? Can you see how backward that is? You should feel shocked, offended and violated.

If the scene played out the way it should, your brother would be stammering an apology and pleading for entry rather than staring at you righteously and expecting a warm welcome. The complexity of the problem exists nowhere other than in your mind.

Once you frame the situation correctly, you’ll know exactly what to say.

Here’s the proper frame:

  1. You have a right to protect your safety any way you see fit. End of story.
  2. You don’t need his agreement about what is safe and what isn’t. You don’t have to persuade him that COVID is real, unreal or something in between. This isn’t a committee decision. If you’re hoping to persuade him, you’re making your decisions subject to his approval. That’s no way to live.
  3. He consciously violated your clear request. You told him not to come. He came. This is about him, not you.
  4. You are responsible to treat him with respect, but not to make him feel good. There is a difference between caring about others feelings and being responsible for them. When you set and hold a boundary, others may display anger. If you make yourself responsible for that, you are taking responsibility for their emotional life. Once again, that’s no way to live.

Now that you see things right, you know what to do. Right?

You open the door only wide enough to stare incredulously at Bob. Then you respectfully, but honestly, let him own the problem. “Bob,” you say, “Happy Thanksgiving. I told you we will not be allowing those outside our immediate household to come for Thanksgiving. Why would you come anyway?”

Is he likely to leave in a huff? Yes. Is he likely to blame you, at least for a while? Yes. And once he gets finished pouting and being defensive, is he likely to honor your boundaries in the future? Yes.

There is often pain in the process of resetting relationship expectations. But a few episodes of discomfort today is a small price to pay to avoid a lifetime of passive resentment.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Thoughts? Join the conversation in the comment section below.

Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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38 thoughts on “I Set Boundaries, They Were Crossed, Now What?

  1. Well… The leadup in the answer seemed a little…harsh? A lot more words than necessary. Maybe just start with — “consider rethinking whose responsibility it is that they showed up anyway. You clearly let them know not to, so they are responsible for their own disappointment when you politely turn them away.”

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’m embarking on a new venture of helping folks learn to say no, without guilt, and this is a perfect example of how and why that can happen. Much appreciated.

  3. I fully agree that it is my responsibility to manage my boundaries, and to allow others to manage theirs. The foundational proposition though is that I alone create the conditions for my own happiness and peace of mind, and while others may offer input, the result is mine to define.

  4. I feel that we don’t know enough to judge whether Joseph’s starting was a little too harsh or not. If No Thank You said things like “oh, we really shouldn’t have the gathering because I (emphasis) would feel terrible” but not clearly communicating that “No, I really do not want anyone to come over”, than maybe the family thought we won’t hold No Thank You responsible at all if anyone gets sick. Maybe No Thank You should’ve stated (s)he doesn’t want to get sick and doesn’t want anyone else get sick, not just that she’d feel bad… Just a thought. I wonder about other’s (and Joseph’s) response to this.

  5. What about the opposite problem – especially regarding schools and childcare? A childcare facility offers COVID-responsible childcare, or a school operating within government guidance, but one family member refuses to allow the children to attend, while the other family member is comfortable with the precautions. Is there a path forward to increase one person’s comfort level with facility’s precautions or must the entire pod/family set their activities by the individual who sets their own isolation level significantly higher the rest?

  6. So agree with Joseph here. Curious, but I am not expecting an answer to this question: Was the family that showed up for Thanksgiving allowed in? If so, it would seem possible (though not necessarily probable) that a boundary and/or boundaries set in the past wasn’t/weren’t strictly enforced, therefore were not taken seriously at Thanksgiving. (Family: “Aww, “No. Thank You” didn’t really mean it….”)

  7. Love this topic and laid out answer. I struggle with people respecting the boundaries I try to set on a daily basis whether it be family or work colleagues. I think your answer and the explanations laid out the way they were is just what I needed to help me, personally, in my responses to those boundaries that I continue to try and set. Thank you!

  8. I don’t disagree with the advice given, but I think it’s important to point out the flaw in the phrase, “I mentioned that I would feel terrible if anyone caught Covid-19 from exposure at my house.” This statement allows for the assumption that the only reason a family gathering is cancelled is for people outside the immediate family. If your reason for canceling is to protect your household, own it, and don’t try to play it off that it’s only for someone else’s safety. Since outside family members didn’t feel at risk, they thought her boundary didn’t apply to them. She should have plainly said, “We’re not having a gathering this year and would like to spend a quiet day at home without visitors.” Would people still be offended? Of course, but the message would be polite and clear.

  9. I read Joseph’s replies to see *how* he answers perhaps even more than *what* he answers. Always insightful.

    One other reframe to help No, Thank You:
    You framed your uninvite as based on concern for *others’* exposure at your house. This may have opened the door to family thinking, “Well I’m not worried about it for myself, so that’s thoughtful of you to be concerned, but we’ll be ok.” You’d hope they’d reflect and follow your thoughtful example for you. Instead they figured they weren’t worried about it for themselves, so you shouldn’t be either.

    I wonder if some of them shared something like this for their reasoning? If not, hearing their other reasons for showing up, could be helpful.

    In any case, if you had been more transparent that your concern was for your own health, I think:
    1) more family would have understood and respected your uninvite and fewer would have shown up unannounced,
    2) some may have called beforehand to discuss your concern,
    3) any conversations at the door with those who didn’t get the message the first time would have been easier, because you could have restated your concern for your own health (and theirs), without allowing them to just ignore your request by minimizing your concern for them.

    We often feel selfish prioritizing our own concerns and want to be and appear thoughtful, so we frame things to ourselves and others in ways that undermine our own concerns and lead us to fail to set and enforce the clear boundaries Joseph discussed. As we practice being more vulnerable and honest about our real fears, we become clearer with others.

    1. Brilliant! I’ve been lead astray by people who were not straight in their requests or responses, posing them instead as a favor or consideration to me. Upon bucking their posed request, they got upset and the real reason emerged in their unmasked reaction, leaving me a little dumbfounded but a little wiser, too.

  10. I don’t think Joseph was particularly harsh if you think that this relative could have been putting the persons life in jeopardy by accidentally/unknowingly giving them COVID by showing up at their house.

    I have found that while most people would have understood that saying “We really shouldn’t have the gathering, I would feel terrible, etc.” clearly meant don’t come, I don’t feel comfortable, etc., there are those that would not have a clue unless you said “Do not come to my house. I will not let you in the door.” Some understand a tap on the shoulder while others need to be hit upside the head. Personally, I can’t imagine going to a relative’s (or anyone’s) house after the conversation, however mild it might have been, unless that person clearly said to me–OK, let’s go ahead and get together, please come on Tuesday around 5 PM. But hey, I prefer a shoulder tap to being hit upside the head.

    I think Joseph really hit the nail on the head. We are not responsible for other people’s emotions or feelings even though we often take ownership when we shouldn’t. Imagine how much easier life would be if everyone set clear boundaries and enforced them.

    1. JP,
      You’re my kind of person. I too am capable of taking a hint and don;t need to be hit up side the head (love that phrase). And I agree that Joseph’s response wasn’t overly harsh as I think all to often people ask questions like this when they know the answer.

      Yes, No Thank you probably could have been clearer when telling her family to not come. Yes, I’d love to know what she did when her brother showed up. I probably would have started coughing in front of him. But, hey, that’s me.

      Anyway, I’m am a rather direct person. While it can be off putting to some, they always know where they stand with me. We all need to learn what Joseph talks about, it is OK to be more concerned for yourself than others. We do need to show kindness, but people that don;t respect boundaries need to have their chains yanked hard.

  11. Ending the comment to the brother with “Why would you come anyway?” opens up a dialogue which is really not needed at this point. I’d rather say something like “I’ll let you know when I’m comfortable with guests in the house. Have a good day…”

    1. I agree with Lauren G. The only thing I’d change about the conversation is the “Why would you come anyway?” It feels a little shaming, too. I like “Have a safe drive home” better. This is such a great reminder about how we’re not responsible for other people’s emotions. It’s doubly hard when others expect you to be! Thanks Joseph

  12. You’ve trained your relatives well! I make this same mistake with my kids so am even more guilty. Trying to undo the damage I have done by accepting things is a real battle (which I fully deserve!)

  13. Some interesting comments. I agree with others that without more details, it’s hard to know if No, Thank You was maybe not clear as to the uninvite and may have worded it more as concern for the relatives’ health, which could have confused them.
    I also want to point out that some families are not good at respecting boundaries. My husband’s family will show up to things even if you specifically ask them not to. In their minds they see it as support for you whether you want them there or not, so I do understand if No, Thank You’s family has this in their culture. I grew up with the opposite on my father’s side, so this was new to me.
    I am not excusing this behavior by any means, just pointing out that because you and your family would take a quiet hint, other families may not.
    Love the reminder, Joseph, that we need to be very clear when setting our boundaries and not feel guilty if others do not take our boundaries to heart, but kindly remind them of those boundaries we’ve set.

  14. I agree with the response. I cannot imagine people just showing up after they had been told not to. No. Thank You doesn’t need to explain ANY reason[s] for not inviting someone into the home unless they choose to do so. We should own what is ours to own but must allow others to do the same! Don’t own what is someone else’s to own. Remember, we teach people how to treat us. Behavior that is allowed, will continue.

  15. Love the principle here: Message sent that was 100% honest and 100% respectful and brevity is brilliant. Boundaries so important for respect.

  16. Your response was honest and respectful … I’m unclear if the person actually let the relatives in and let them stay.
    Personally, I would not have been nice … They violated YOUR boundaries.
    What part of NO did they not understand? They are adults, not young children.
    If the person / relative who set the boundary opened the door and let them in, they did not respect themself…”we teach people how to treat us.” If we accept poor / inappropriate / disrespectful behavior from others with whom we have set boundaries, then we need to take responsibility for our actions.
    And, if the relatives left angry, that is their issue, not yours.

  17. Joseph,

    Even as I generally agree with the advice you offered, I’m more perplexed (and marvelling) at why there were all these assumptions that the advice-seeker felt “responsible for coddling them”, and did “moral gymnastics”. Where did you see clear evidence of this? I saw none. Please don’t take this as criticism but rather hear that I want to mention another possibility out of offering potential compassion for how it might have impacted the advice-seeker, even as I don’t know what was the case for them.

    I imagine its possible that the advice-seeker could have basically agreed with everything you said, but was only asking about how to deliver the message with care.

    If this were the case and I was the advice-seeker I’d have a hard time hearing things I already know said to me in this way as though I’m less capable of understanding these things than I am. I winced at reading the message delivered in this way. I wished to see more humility woven into the response. Apart from that, I appreciate the advice laid out so clearly, and in found your tips and perspective overall helpful to consider. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  18. I like the reminder that we need to always be respectful. But when we set boundaries & enforce them, the other person will likely have some sticky feelings and that is ok. I am not responsible to help them feel ok or to try not to make them feel bad. I’m really working on this one.

  19. I was brought up in a culture where people bend backwards to accommodate others for fear of being judged or termed as rude. I am daily making strides in enforcing the boundaries I have set. Slowly but surely getting there one day at a time. Great Advice.

  20. I think I would have had my mask on when I opened the door and would have reminded Bob that I had sent an e-mail that we are not hosting a family thanksgiving event this year.due to the covid pandemic. Did you receive this e-mail and read it? I would have gone outside and had the conversation outside rather than let the person in the house. I personally do not feel comfortable asking the why question as asking the why’s is more confrontational and inviting an argument. I likely would have said in a perfect world. I would enjoy gettting together with you when it is safe to do so.
    See you when it’s safe.

  21. Hi Joseph, great article! I definitely need to work on my boundary issues.
    I was in bed last night trying to sleep, when I remembered you talking before about being surrounded by a “peace bubble” when you were faced with adversity.
    I need a “peace bubble” in my life right now.
    Can you point me in a direction where I can learn how to acquire a peace bubble?
    Thank you!

      1. Hi Ryan, yes that was it. A great webinar; thanks!
        Yesterday, after I posted I Googled “peace bubble” and the results reminded me of something I had read from Steven Hayes and Russ Harris concerning the ACT process of Self-as-Context/Observing Self/Noticing Self. I used this ACT process last night to help get a grip on my thoughts and it worked pretty good addressing my issue of having no heat or water in my home due to the freak winter storm here in Texas. Hopefully, I will start using it on a regular basis and make it a new habit for 2021. All the best!

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