Boundaries and Compassion: Relationships
Our thanks once again to mega-mentor Lisa Gentile, for this follow-up to Boundaries and Compassion (Part 1).
Lisa’s thoughtful response to the questions at the end of the post were what I needed recently to reframe a situation with someone I trust and worked closely with in the past. We hit a couple of communication and expectations bumps that left us both at odds. (Continued at the end of Lisa’s post).
How do you choose your confidant?
In general, confidant candidates appear randomly in my life. A client of mine recently said that when she shares a little, enters a vulnerable space, and her conversation partner then shares a little bit in that vulnerable space they can begin to build trust. It starts with a risk. It takes trust to build trust.
I am grateful to have a handful of confidential relationships. We can go to each other to share aspirations, successes, confessions, and challenges without fear of eliciting resentment or judgment from each other. But these feelings do come up, we’re only human. We try to be compassionate toward ourselves and each other and say, “Hey, this topic is awkward for me right now. I’m not up to this.”
When I need to share something specific I consider who is physically, emotionally, and mentally available and maybe who is already close to the topic at hand. I suspect that I also consider which of my friends seems to reflect the image of myself that I want to live up to through the matter of the moment. That gives me a sense of safety when I’m vulnerable. This bias is natural. However, I do trust my confidants to hold me accountable and to call me out on flawed logic or restrictive thinking.
How do you recognize and communicate the type of feedback you need?
First I spend some time in my “cave”, in the swim lane, or on the trail trying to figure out whether and where I am stuck. I try to notice which thoughts are circling in my mind, where I draw blanks, or what I feel I need to express. The researcher in me likes to determine what information I need in order to reach an actionable decision. Then I can go to a friend and say, “I need your help in looking at blank.”
But it’s not always so simple to reach a clear hypothesis. So more and more I do myself the favor of realizing earlier in the process that I can explore these very questions with a confidant or, depending on the topic, my coach. I can bring in support sooner rather than later.
How do you recognize unjust and/or inappropriate comments or actions from others?
It starts in the gut, the heart, or the brain. Pick an organ. We all want to feel appreciated for who we are. If I feel unheard, used, or otherwise discounted I hold back. If I think that the other person is determined to project his or her own agenda rather than respect my effort to share myself and reach out, I am discouraged from sharing more at that time. It might be that the timing is bad for one or both of us. It might be habitual.
But we can be more methodical about identifying unsafe harbors. One approach is to be aware of I-statements that are really you-statements in disguise. I-statements are meant to be assertive or declarative without being offensive. An example of an I statement is, “I feel that my share of the work is too large.” This opens the conversation up for empathy, problem solving, and collaboration. An example of a cloaked you-statement is, “I feel that you are not a team player.” This statement bypasses the opportunity to solve the practical problem, puts the receiver on the defensive, and further isolates the sender. Few people will warm up to hearing “I feel that you . . . “
Especially in the creative world, I-statements can be pivotal in providing constructive criticism and even in giving compliments. The Wikipedia article on I-messages gives a nice example of feedback: “ . . . one might say, ‘I had to read that section of your paper three times before I understood it,’ rather than, ‘This section is worded in a really confusing way,’ or ‘You need to learn how to word a paper more clearly.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-message)
When it comes to compliments, I would much rather hear, “I like it when you synthesize and reflect what I’ve said. I know you are listening,” than, “You are good.” The former is specific and describes a connection. The latter is a judgment.
Of course confidants can get away with more because they have trust equity. They are not evaluating the entire relationship after every sentence and they have time to elucidate messages. Furthermore, our interpretation of language is filtered by our beliefs and cultural norms so it makes sense to not be too quick to rule someone out. Deborah Tannen developed an interesting theory that we care about how the information we pass effects the receiver as much as we care about the information that we pass.
It would be nice if we all had the time, energy, and presence of mind to polish our communication skills from time to time. Short of that, if we continually encounter someone who doesn’t match our expectations of personal responsibility, it might be a good idea to keep a polite distance.
Does it happen repeatedly with the same person or people?
Difficult people have good days and easy people have bad days. I have grown close to people who initially offended me. I hope that others have given me a second, third, and fourth chance. But when it’s a recurring issue, I detach.
Specifically, what tactics have you developed to protect yourself in these situations, separating you (the recipient) from the message and sender of that message?
No kidding, when a comment catches me off guard I sometimes visualize an aikido turn that is designed to let the offending gesture roll past me and return me to my center stance.
If I must socialize or work with someone who probably means well but with whom I don’t feel mutual trust, I try to limit our interaction to group activities where there is not much pressure on one-to-one experience.
How and what do you communicate in this scenario?
It depends on the context and our relationship. Sometimes it’s helpful to “check-in.” I might ask whether there is something specific on the speaker’s mind. I might say I need a time out to sort out the issues. I might ask whether we can separate the issues together.
One conflict resolution technique that I use in the Moxie Mavericks Team Strengths Builder workshop can be useful here. Conflict often leads to mutual feelings of disrespect. Sometimes it helps to stop and share what we each value most in the situation—which signature strengths we are trying to express. Then we can appreciate each other and find a way for both objectives to be met.
How do you remain compassionate, but protect your personal boundaries?
Oh, the forgiveness I have received!
Life can be hard for all of us. At times people have assumed things about my life and therefore how I should behave. I’ve learned to try to not assume things about the lives of others. I don’t know what I don’t know. Hopefully, we don’t have to condemn others to protect ourselves. We need to nurture our own emotional resiliency.
Contracts are helpful. My sister and I are both business owners and sometimes we collaborate. When we do, we write and sign a contract. Some people think we’re silly. But we clarify and document our expectations so we can focus on collaboration. We define our boundaries for that particular aspect of our relationship.
How do you heal yourself after such an encounter?
To sustain performance, we have to manage our energies through a regular cycle of expenditure and recovery. Emotional energy is one of the four types that requires special attention. To recover my emotional energy after a difficult encounter, I acknowledge my negative feelings and show myself a little compassion. I use Dr. Kristen Neff’s guided meditations for self-compassion. They are available for free at www.self-compassion.org.
Sometimes it helps to make an effort to empathize and forgive, to consider the situation from the other person’s perspective. Then I do something that I enjoy in order to move toward positive feelings again.
What form of creativity helps you re-center and move forward again?
I like working in the yard or at the workbench because the projects require decisive action and the results are somewhat immediate. There are usually half a dozen projects that I can sand, paint, saw, drill, or dig at a moment’s notice. I like a walk in the woods, a swim, or a sail to really refresh. Knitting works in a pinch. These activities help me discharge energy from adrenaline and cortisol. Journaling and sketching help me sort out residual thoughts.
Lisa Gentile, M.S.
Moxie Mavericks Life Coaching
Thank you, Lisa!
Identifying your own responsibility in these interactions, and engaging with coping skills to deal with the flow – rather than reactive response – is something I need to remember. . . at the time of encounter. I need to also remember to breathe OUT without words or monkey mind thoughts to get my bearings.
Trying to get it all figured out before asking for help is another biggie — I’m really glad you stated that here. Too often, we — the helper types — think we should be able to handle “it” ourselves, and can waste precious time, psychic energy, and generate huge amounts of destructive worry and adrenal overload when we don’t consider our resources (like trusted confidants).
I’m glad I had your wisdom before I talked to my colleague. I addressed, and cleared the air, about one of our issues in a way that was constructive for both of us. My gut kept me silent about the other at that time; something wasn’t “right” about how I wanted to talk about it. Rereading this post made me realize I was approaching the problem with pseudo-“I” statements that were really “you” criticism.
Boundaries, Compassion, and Relationships — the very heart of so much of our poetry, no?