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How to Set Boundaries During Difficult Conversations

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When we are relaxed at home or in a positive state of mind it can be easier for us to understand the deeper meaning of someone else’s words and intent. We may also assess these words and take action that provides a ‘mature’ response and enables us to maintain our self-esteem and help the other person in the conversation. 

When we are stressed and tired, we can often react to other people’s words and not act in a way that is in the best interests of our own self-esteem and that of the other person.  

Setting boundaries during times when another person says something that goes against your values can help us to maintain our self-esteem and maintain a healthier relationship with others. 

Psychologist Thomas Gordon’s I-message technique is a great way to set boundaries.  This method takes full responsibility for your feelings, needs and values and takes away the concept of an ‘attack’ on the person who has crossed such boundaries. It enables you to make it clear that what the other individual did was not OK with you, but it does so in a manner that allows you to maintain your strength and dignity. 

Examples of this include: ‘I need/want/think/feel.’ 

If a colleague of yours interrupts you it is possible for you to use this method and say, ‘I am happy to help you but I need to focus on my work right now and I will call you later at 4pm if that is OK?’ You express what you want and by offering a choice it is a warmer response.  

If a relative makes an inappropriate comment in front of your children you can say, ‘I love you very much but I feel that it is not ok to say such things in front of my children. Are you willing to not use such language in front of my children?’ Here you have expressed your feelings of love and the fact that the comments made you feel uncomfortable. You also give the relative freedom of choice. You have shown your boundary but given room for a mature open conversation which is different from an argument and you prevent pushing that person into a defensive stance.  

If a loved one or friend dismisses your accomplishments you could say, ‘I feel that when I share something positive about my day you quickly change the subject.  I think that we both have many things to be proud of and I would like us to express such things equally with each other.’ Here you have expressed your feelings and also complimented the other person for their successes without directly attacking them with blame.  

Practising mindful communication can help us to understand and connect with others and be more empathic. This can help both participants in the conversation listen closely to one another without dismissing ideas and distraction.  

This is very different from shouting and blaming another individual which can result in them being defensive and could lead to a full-blown argument. By using the I-message technique you are doing the following: 

  • Taking responsibility for your own feelings. 
  • Setting your boundaries. 
  • Letting the other person know boundaries have been crossed without ‘attacking’ them. 

Practise using the I-message technique throughout your week to build stronger relationships and maintain your boundaries and self-esteem.

David Chorlton is a positive psychology practitioner, emotional intelligence teacher, and mindfulness teacher.


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