Boundaries for unintentional boundary-crossers
July 5, 2021 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Are there books, workbooks, YouTube channels, etc for people who want to get better at respecting other people's unstated boundaries? Particularly at work.

I'm not in management, and this is probably a more basic social skill, so it's a little different than this question:

Someone I trust, who is a leader/participant in a group I'm in at work, has told me I'm pushing other people's boundaries. They've given examples, and I've apologized to everyone who was in an example. T
here is one boss who sees my behavior as a serious flaw that mere apologies cannot fix but that I must root out and absolutely stop doing.

I told my therapist the details of the scenarios, and they said yes, these examples are mistakes, but they are normal mistakes everyone makes. Perfect isn't possible. I suspect they might not understand the dynamics at my job well enough to advise me.

I shared the details with friends who work similar jobs elsewhere, they tell me I'm being unappreciated and should find another job. I suspect that these friends only see my outward achievements and don't really understand the interpersonal dynamic that I'm being asked to work on. Maybe if we worked together day in and day out, instead of just occasional friend hangouts it would become clearer. Or maybe they have similar flaws but their workplaces tolerate it.

I've only done work on boundaries when it comes to setting my own boundaries. Are there books or workbooks for people who want to get better at respecting other people's unstated boundaries?

I would never cross a line that someone asked me not to cross. I'm not giving offense on purpose. I pepper my conversations and emails with the workplace's preferred phrases like "you're the best!!" and "no worries if not!!!"

But I do sometimes struggle to grasp social situations. And I think that's what I'm being asked to do: read a room that I find hard to read, not ask awkward questions of anyone, not be passive and opt out of participating, but sort of mind-read when it is crucial that I proactively ask someone for more details on a work topic, and when I must not ask for any more details on a work topic because to do so would be hideously rude.

Googling got me this far:

The bullet points on
-taking up other people's time, and
-stepping in to help when not asked to assist
feel relevant. I think I would benefit from more explanation and a lot of examples.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming to Work & Money (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Lack of understanding other peoples' boundaries can be real, and I would make a point of checking in with people, but. This may also be a form of intimidation and mild bullying to establish dominance, especially if you are female-presenting.

Women in the workplace are expected to tread a very fine line, when, in reality, there is no safe space between being assertive and being a pushover. Look for a mentor, can be female-presenting, doesn't have to be. Your question is full of red flags to me unless this has been an issue for you elsewhere. Newcomers are often hazed in the guise of managing.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 AM on July 5, 2021 [16 favorites]

I feel like a couple of examples would help here - maybe including something about the specific interpersonal dynamics that you say other people don't really get.

Given that the advice that you've already been given spans the range between "no big deal, it's on them not you" and "total deal-breaker", by way of "understandable human failing" - it might be hard for us to do much better, based on the information as presented.
posted by rd45 at 9:54 AM on July 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

And I think that's what I'm being asked to do: read a room that I find hard to read, not ask awkward questions of anyone, not be passive and opt out of participating, but sort of mind-read when it is crucial that I proactively ask someone for more details on a work topic, and when I must not ask for any more details on a work topic because to do so would be hideously rude.

I dunno, that sounds like people using therapy-talk (i.e. "boundaries) to excuse their own poor communication skills. Respecting someone's boundaries shouldn't require reading their mind. I also can't imagine how asking for details on a work topic would be "hideously rude" if done in the context of trying to do your job. I'd listen to your therapist and friends here.
posted by coffeecat at 9:55 AM on July 5, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I think this whole thing sounds messed up. If you have a job where you're walking on eggshells (that famous phrase) and feel like you can't do things right while still doing a good job with actual tasks/work performance and you aren't, eg, giving people unwanted diet advice or shoulder massages, the problem is the job, not you. Work isn't the same as personal relationships where there's a very high level of emotional mutuality expected - if someone doesn't want you taking on a task or feels that you habitually ask too many work-related questions, they can and should tell you so and you should (as it sounds like you do) stop doing the thing.

I also think that even if someone intrinsically has trouble reading the room and can overstep a little, it's pretty lousy to get upset at them if they stop overstepping when asked.

I don't like that website you linked. It has a strong feeling of "check yourself constantly for sinning that YOU MAY NOT EVEN REALIZE YOU DO, you should always be anxious lest you are being a bad person without even realizing it". This tumblr mentality is really harmful for people who have anxiety or depression, etc, because they (perhaps you?) are already inclined to think that they do a bad job with things.

"Boundaries" doesn't mean "everyone else should be very, very careful to make sure that they don't take up any of my time without asking or be early to an appointment". Honestly, all this just seems so rigid and screwed up and based in the assumption that we're all constantly locked in a power struggle about respect and overstepping, etc etc.

I would trust your friends and therapist on this one. Your therapist sees a LOT of people in a lot of situations and has developed a lot of instincts about how situations tend to play out. You pay your therapist for their insights and experience and you should, bar any facts not given here, trust them.
posted by Frowner at 10:22 AM on July 5, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I pepper my conversations and emails with the workplace's preferred phrases like "you're the best!!" and "no worries if not!!!"

Ew. I realize that this is A Thing people do, but please stop. For your own sanity if nothing else.

I agree with the others who say it's hard to have any take on this without seeing the actual examples your boss cited, so I'll just stick to this conversational/email trope.

Ask for what you need to do your job, nothing more or less, and give a genuine unvarnished thank you when you receive it. The no worries if not crap and you're the best crap reads as completely insincere 95% of the time. See synonyms at "omg you're a rockstar!" when I've simply done my job. How about we all just do our jobs and go home. It is entirely okay for you to have the expectation that your coworkers deliver and do their jobs. If you're asking for more than that, and you're not their boss, then that may be interpreted as pushing a boundary (yes, even if it's snuggled in with a 'no worries if not').
posted by phunniemee at 10:28 AM on July 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

To elaborate a little, and a more charitable reading, there is a culture there, but it may not be visible to outsiders. Your manager should be helping you navigate what may be an entrenched, inflexible, and invisible set of rules.
posted by theora55 at 10:46 AM on July 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So it's very hard to give advice on this when you haven't given any specific examples, but here are a couple of points:

- Memorize the phrases "Would you like me to help with that?" and "Would you like advice?" and use them religiously before jumping in with assistance or advice.
- Make a list - an actual list, possibly in a spreadsheet - of who is responsible for what and who is the right person to ask when you need help about something. Sometimes it's your manager, sometimes it's the lead on a given project, sometimes it's the old-timer who loves helping people out - without knowing what kind of work you do, it's hard to be specific, but this is a very handy thing to think through.
- It may be helpful to ask your manager if you can have a weekly or biweekly check-in with them where you can bring your saved-up questions and it is explicitly ok to ask them. This isn't always possible - managers differ, and a lot of them aren't good at prioritizing, you know, managing, but if it can happen it might be very helpful.

Is there someone at the office who has talked to you about this that you trust, that you could ask to mentor you? It might be easier if you can get specific and in-the-moment feedback rather than general strategies. I also happily advise setting aside some time to read through Ask A Manager, which has many, many descriptions of workplace norms and how to deal with them. The "related question" feature can be very helpful if you find one that resonates - there are probably many more.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:08 AM on July 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Can you say what the examples are which you have been given of your supposed "boundary-crossing"? This is not the sort of thing anyone can give you advice on based off of a vague description. We need specific examples.

Like, there are times when I have asked people to start respecting my boundaries better and given them examples like, "When I say I don't want to do something because I'm tired, do not try to convince me I'm not too tired to do the thing," and they have described this situation to other people as, "She wants me to read her mind about when I'm allowed to persuade her to do things and when persuasion is not allowed." And on the other hand, there are times when people have said I've "crossed their boundaries" if I was communicating my own feelings ("Aw, that's disappointing, but I understand,") or asking if they'd like to communicate theirs ("You sound upset and I'm not sure why. Would you like to talk about it?")

So specificity is extremely important in situations like these. Please share the specific examples you were given, so you can get some useful responses.
posted by MiraK at 11:32 AM on July 5, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It would be helpful to have examples and maybe info on the type of business, industry or culture. Respecting other people's boundaries seems like an odd description. People set their own boundaries and are generally responsible for letting others know when they've been intrusive, i.e., "I don't care to discuss my salary or religion." Are you asking/making inappropriate questions/remarks and don't realize it?

What is an example of someone's "unstated boundaries" that presumably you should have already known about? Did you touch a Black woman's hair? (Just kidding... As a Black woman I would not state this...everyone should know better. :-))

Are you getting off topic in meetings where the agenda is A, B and C and you start talking about D, or criticizing a management decision (we should never have done... and that's why we're behind schedule), or meeting with senior leaders who want high level info and you're bogging them down with details?
posted by shoesietart at 11:53 AM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: "Unspoken boundaries" is super broad and nebulous, and without examples, it's hard to know where to focus advice. I will say that sometimes people telling you that you're violating unspoken boundaries and social conventions is them telling you something about yourself (that you're missing social cues or otherwise mistaken about your role in a situation), but sometimes it's them telling you something about themselves (that they're intimidated or annoyed by you speaking up for yourself or others, or by you calling out problems, or that they're not willing to communicate clearly and expect you to read their minds). Unfortunately it can be hard to tell the difference without some really candid self-reflection and talking with someone who knows you will and will be honest with you.

Specifically regarding stepping in to help when you're not asked to assist, though: I've been this person at work, and I've since dealt with several people who do this at work, so maybe I can provide some information that helps.

When I was this person, I had the habit in large part because I just automatically felt the burden of being responsible for solving any problem that crossed my field of vision, whether or not it was officially my job to do so. Frankly, years of therapy to understand where that come from has been the most useful for me there. To be fair to myself, sometimes it was my own trauma history showing up, but sometimes it was legitimately true knowledge that no one else actually would solve the problem, so if I didn't, it wouldn't get solved. But even then, it wasn't my job to solve all those problems and prop up a failing organization.

But it was also because I (mostly but not always subconsciously) thought it made me look helpful, and useful, and on top of things. And now that I've worked with other folks who do it, I really wish someone had taken the time to tell me that it doesn't! It actually made me look bad: overeager, annoyingly unpredictable, overstepping for prestige or attention, so arrogant that I don't trust other people to do things correctly, or just completely bumblingly clueless about how things work.

It can feel bad from the receiving end, too. When an overeager colleague tries to help me by stepping into a project or taking actions related to my work without me asking, I feel like they don't trust me to do my own work. When they do something I explicitly asked them not to do, I feel like they don't trust me AND don't respect me enough to listen to my explicit instructions.

For folks who present as women, it can also reinforce the stereotype that we are helpers and assistants by default, which makes people less likely to give us opportunities for more interesting and career-advancing work.

And in addition to all the above, always stepping in to help when you're not asked is also a quick way to take on too much and burn yourself out--and people are likely to have less sympathy for that burnout if they perceive you as having done it to yourself by taking on too much that you didn't need to.

You might also want to consider whether there's a mis-alignment of cultural expectations at play. If you're from a culture where "No, don't do this" more often means "I'm telling you not to do it, but really I expect you to do it because you should know it's your job to do it" and your colleagues are not from that same culture, it can be tough to learn to start taking people at face value.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:03 PM on July 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, and I just want to clarify that I'm not asking for feedback on the specific situations. I've gotten that from therapist and friends as well as from the people at work. I'm sure the answers here would mostly agree with therapist/friends/the people at work I apologized to and who thought it was no big deal, and a minority here would agree with the one boss who is convinced it's a deal breaker. Your general comments are helpful, about taking up people's time at work and stepping in with good intentions to help them.

It's knowledge work, at the intersection of some different types of expertise, so the work culture is a hodgepodge for that reason. The situations are 100 percent work related, and it's about "striking the right balance." Think along the lines of getting off-topic in one situation, and staying too rigidly on-topic in another. Bogging people down with details in one situation, not providing enough details in another. Asking my supervisor for help in one situation, not asking my supervisor for help in another situation. It's not that I don't understand that there's a balance, it's that I can't predict how my action (or inaction) will be perceived in an edge case.

I'm hoping for resources that will help me learn from rules and examples how to convince this one boss that I've started asking the right questions at the right times and stopped asking the wrong questions at the wrong times, and that I'm not even nudging anyone's boundaries (this would be temporary until I find another job, but that may take a while, and I want to stay employed meanwhile). Ask a Manager is a good thought. Maybe something with audio, video, maybe even something fictional, that would help me add tone and demeanor to the mix?

Yes, I suspect I'm on the spectrum. This therapist and previous therapist said I'm clearly not, and that it would be a waste to get tested. But I think I'm in such a habit of masking and carefully avoiding or planning supports for situations where I'd be out of my element, that it's not visible to most others day to day. All that to say if you know of resources for people on the spectrum to develop soft skills for office work, that might also be helpful.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 12:18 PM on July 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

>Think along the lines of getting off-topic in one situation, and staying too rigidly on-topic in another. Bogging people down with details in one situation, not providing enough details in another. Asking my supervisor for help in one situation, not asking my supervisor for help in another situation.
People have different styles and benefit from some tailoring to match up how they best respond in interactions. It's on your company to get everyone to talk about this -- tools like Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator help foster those conversations when it's a whole-population enabling survey. (Caveat that we're contextual creatures anyway, not everyone is always a base 'type': you don't keep laughing to yourself about the tiktok funnies at a funeral or asking questions interupting a person defusing the bomb next to you.)

Even if you don't get this hint of the people around you, keep score of the times the people around you got what they wanted out of an interaction. Watch for the first hint, because it's a "gather data" -> "make prediction"game.
posted by k3ninho at 2:38 PM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: Think along the lines of getting off-topic in one situation, and staying too rigidly on-topic in another. Bogging people down with details in one situation, not providing enough details in another.

Maybe you can work around this with more communication. Things like
"Am I getting off topic, or should I continue?"
"Stop me if you already know all this or if it's too much detail"
"Let me know at any point if you'd like more detail"

Asking my supervisor for help in one situation, not asking my supervisor for help in another situation.

The first one here really seems problematic -- they're you're supervisor, it's their job to explain to you when to ask for help and when not, and surely asking for help isn't a sin unless maybe you're doing it all the time. All they have to do is say "I think you can do that by yourself". And meanwhile if you're afraid to get chewed out for asking for help, you're less likely to do so in the cases where you "should". So without knowing more, this one seems like a case of trying to extrapolate this one specific person's preferences and acting accordingly, and maybe trying to manage up a little: "Hi supervisor, I'm going to start working on X today. I feel pretty confident about it but of course would welcome any input you might have in case I'm missing something. My plan at the moment is to do A, B, and C." Kind of asking for help and not asking for help at the same time.

I do think more details would help, just to know the specific kinds of interactions you're talking about, but I wonder if it would help in general to think about interactions through a lens of "how can I help the people around me". So think about what they might understand or not understand; how busy or interested they might be; whether you can help them get credit for something, or accidentally stop them from getting credit; whether your work might in some way help them with theirs or get in their way; whether they'll feel respected by you as a colleague or report or not; and so on.

If you're not very good at "guess culture" or "high context culture" stuff, you might consider asking your therapist to practice with you, or find another therapist or coach who's good at helping you think through the different ways people might react to the things you do, and how to put yourself in their shoes. With regards to the situations that prompted this post, do you understand the logic behind people's reactions? If not, is your therapist able to explain it and give you exercises about similar situations?
posted by trig at 4:37 PM on July 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with others that these nebulous examples are really hard to make sense of, but, ok:

You can often earn a lot of goodwill by stating up front if there's an area you're unsure about - basically admitting (but in a welcoming, low-drama, solution-oriented way) that you welcome it when people collaborate to explicitly help you define what the boundaries are.

"I can go a bit deep on this topic as it's a favourite of mine. But I want this advice to be useful to you, so please feel free to stop me if I'm repeating something you already know, or if more detail would be helpful!"

"Supervisor, I just wanted to start this project with a quick check-in to outline what I see coming up: I can easily do tasks ABC. When we get to D, that's newer territory for me. Is it ok if I check back in at that point to make sure I'm on track? Or is there a different person or resource I should consult when I get to that point."

Hi Judy! Thanks again for our chat today. Your ideas are great and the plan you've laid out looks like it will work well. Please feel free to reach out if there are any other details I can share that would be useful, or if there's any specific way I can help out! Let me know if you'd like us to schedule another check in meeting next week- I'm around!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:48 PM on July 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think with social perimeters/balances ("boundaries," which I think a pretty general descriptor) - most people are just seeking balance, and struggle with communication. Oftentimes a person uncertain of personal balance is attempting to remain in control of themselves without controlling or exhausting others. Either clarifying beforehand, or picking up a rhythm for others' working styles/communication styles may create the clarification for you.

I'd reread a lot of articulated experiences within, there are some really valuable experiences for delineating your own working style, while letting others express theirs.
posted by firstdaffodils at 8:51 PM on July 5, 2021

By the way, I don't know how you are with eye contact (or whether you're working remotely now, which might change things). But "checking in" a lot with frequent eye contact can help to get a sense of whether your listeners are still with you or if you've lost them with too many details, or said something they don't like. If you accompany the eye contact with a slight pause as you speak, it can also give them room to ask questions or redirect the conversation, and for some people it will make them feel like you care about what they think or feel, which can make them feel better about you. So if you haven't been consciously using eye contact this way, that might be something you could practice. If direct eye contact is difficult, just looking generally at their faces could have a similar effect.
posted by trig at 11:16 PM on July 5, 2021

Response by poster: Last update, because I think I figured out what happened thanks to a comment I saw here, but I don't see it anymore, so maybe I only imagined it. It said to "make your boss's boss look good."

The one particular boss who is most upset with me was embarrassed when I did my job in a reasonable (imperfect, but understandably imperfect) way. I didn't know that at the time. I didn't have enough insight into the inner workings to see how this could embarrass him or anyone.

In his mind, I should have put making him look good above all other concerns in that one scenario (and I would have, if I had had the relevant info), and the rest of the complaints seem to be a smokescreen to make me appear generally bad at my job. It may work, it may not. I guess it depends on how strong my record is and how strong my allies are.

Thanks again for the explanations and examples that were so generously shared. I will still look back at them for general improvement, which never hurts. :)
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 7:11 AM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

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