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Resetting your boundaries when back in the workplace

Resetting your boundaries when back in the workplace

One of the benefits of remote working has been the ability, at least to some extent, to set and protect our personal boundaries. We were able to keep at a distance those intrusions which caused a drain on our time, brought unwelcome criticism or were just downright nosy.

If you’ve been out of contact with those around you, you’ll quickly need re-establish relationships and the boundaries you’ll want to put in place to deflect some of the inevitable aspects of office life. Others will be asserting themselves and working out what they can impose on their colleagues and what push-back, if any, they’ll be likely to get.

We know being assertive isn’t in everyone’s comfort zone, so we’ve mapped out a few scenarios you might experience - and how to respond.


Scenario 1: Deflecting conflict situations

No one likes to be on the receiving end of an uncomfortable request, or find themselves being held to account by others which may feel like being put on the spot. Other people often feel their opinion or way of doing things carries more weight than yours. So, what can you do?

Buy yourself some time before responding. ‘That’s interesting, I’ll think about it and get back to you’. Or, ‘You’ve caught me in the middle of something. Can we pick this up in a half hour?’ Both responses give you time to think through a more measured response than the one you might have made. If you do end up backing down at least you would have considered it properly rather than make an instinctive response you might later regret.

Learn to acknowledge the other person’s perspective without agreeing with it. ‘I can see this is important to you’.  Or, ‘In your shoes, I would probably feel the same way about this situation’.

Take discussions to the bigger picture rather than arguing on the same point ‘I think we’re both concerned with the impact this will have on productivity generally’.

Politicians are experts at deflecting conflict, especially from the media. They use a technique called ‘bridging’ which involves acknowledging the question - not ignoring it. What they then do is move it away to a topic they feel more confident addressing. How often have you heard a response like ‘That’s an interesting question, but I’d like to point out…, or the real issue is…’


Scenario 2: You are being offered unsolicited advice

We all know those people who are so sure of their opinion that they feel you’d like to hear it too. In a work situation they feel they could contribute to how you are doing your job or could have managed a certain situation. Here are a few responses:

While genuinely constructive feedback can be helpful, the unwelcome kind needs a polite but firm response.  ‘At the moment, I’m not looking for feedback, but thanks for thinking of me’.

If you feel that you’d like to communicate your boundary for a specific incident but want to keep the door open - and do it politely, you could say 'Thanks for your thoughts. I have my own plan for handling this, but I really appreciate your view on it. Can I let you know if I need any help in the future?’

If there are those people that have always offered their advice or feedback - and are now resuming that trait back in the office, you could respond with ‘I appreciate that you are always happy to help me out. What I’d appreciate on this occasion is for you to have faith I’ll come up with a solution on my own.’


Scenario 3: Dealing with those nosy questions

Being back face to face is, for some people at least, an opportunity to ask those more personal questions. They might think it’s all part of striking up a conversation or building a relationship but you are under no obligation to respond, even if they’re not overtly offensive. If you’d rather put a boundary around your personal life or information, you can do it without causing offence.

Go for the direct deflection, don’t even start to answer. You could say ‘There are far more interesting things we could talk about! How are you finding the commute into work these days?’ It’s a fairly obvious rebuff but it’s effective.

If you feel the question is clearly too personal, you could say 'Thank you for your interest, but I’d rather not discuss my personal life.’ Or, ‘When I have news to share, I’ll let you know’.

If someone wants to find out about your job or pay grade, you could deflect with humour, along the lines of ‘Trust me, not even close to what I’m worth!’ Or the more assertive ‘Don’t you think that’s a little personal?’


Scenario 4: People want more of your time

We think time could be one of the most obvious boundaries you’ll need to protect, and this is nothing new. Pressure on time has been such an issue for organisations that we wrote a book about it a few years back called Time Mastery, and it’s a topic we run entire programmes on. Without doubt, as you return to the office, other people will want more of your time. The delegators will be only too pleased to see you back. So, how can you respond?

The best approach, and the one that will help you protect your time, is to give a clear, assertive and respectful response. We’ve written a full blog on the topic, but in summary:

A good way to decline work could be to say ‘Thanks for thinking of me. I’m at capacity at the moment so will have to say no on this occasion. I wish you all the best with the project’.

You can buy more time in a positive way by responding with ‘I love the sound of that. I’ll let you know in the next few days. Can you send me through the details?’

And, if you really would like to be involved, a good way to say ‘Yes’ in a way that still gives you some control is to say ‘Thanks for asking me. I’d love to be involved. Give me some more detail so I can get a sense of the part I’ll play.’

Read more in ‘How to protect and communicate your time boundaries’.

Some tips on body language

Often in situations where your boundaries are being threatened, the best response is a mix of what we say and our body language. Your boundaries are more likely to remain in place when you smile, maintain eye contact, remain calm, and use a controlled and steady tone of voice.

If you do anything that looks defensive - like cross your arms or put your hands up in a deflective position, you are showing you are feeling threatened. This can affect those speaking to you in two ways - they may feel uncomfortable so they raise their assertiveness or just feel like they’ve won the argument.

In conclusion

Returning to the workplace after such an extended break is bound to see people try and assert their positions - which may impinge on your boundaries. They may intrude a little too much into your world, but perhaps they are just trying to build up a relationship and are a little insensitive to what they should ask. It’s important to remember that other people’s behaviour towards you says more about them than you, so don’t take it personally.  

With some pre-planned responses and some thought towards your body language, you’ll be able to deflect some of the unwanted requests while buying a little time to consider what you do want to be involved with - or what you’d like others to know. As we say in our book, Time Mastery, you behave your time boundaries - and it’s these behaviours that send out the signals you want others to understand.

How Can We help?

How else can we help?

If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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