4 min read

Kindness starts with boundaries

Kindness starts with boundaries
Photo by Mia Anderson / Unsplash

Like many people, I have a hard time with setting and maintaining my boundaries. While I love to help other people, I also struggle with the idea of disappointing them. My tendency to be a people-pleaser often results in me prioritizing other people's comfort over respecting my own needs.

I also tend to undermine myself by getting caught up in believing that other people "should" instinctively know how to behave:

They should have taken care of this – it's their job.

They should be more self-aware of how they are coming off.

They should have said something sooner if they were unhappy about this.

They should not be coming to me last minute with these requirements.

They should know better.

We can all endlessly impose "shoulds" on ourselves and others. I certainly have in the past, and at times continue to do so. However, I've come to understand that excessive "should-ing" usually indicates a need for clearer communication and boundary-setting.

Boundaries for Effective Teamwork

Recently, I was tech-leading a project with tight deadlines. Requirements and designs were constantly changing, which created a lot of uncertainty for my engineering team. People complained that leadership should know better, and couldn't understand how there could be so much churn given our timelines. I ended up implementing a structured schedule to establish clear rules and alleviate uncertainty for my team. The schedule looked something like this:

  • 12/30: Requirements Complete
  • 01/05: Design Complete
  • 01/10: Content Complete
  • 01/15: Feature Complete
  • 01/25: Code Complete
  • 01/30: Production Launch
  • 02/05: Customer Launch

After creating this schedule, I sent it to our entire cross-functional team, and had a meeting to discuss these ground rules:

  • If any of these dates are missed, we will communicate on that day that the entire project will be delayed.
  • If any requirements or designs change after a completion date, the engineering team will make their best effort implement changes, but there are no guarantees.
  • The source of truth for every feature will be what is written on the corresponding ticket. If a conversation or decision does not happen on the ticket, it might as well have never happen.

At first, enforcing these deadlines and rules was extremely uncomfortable. I found myself in the role of the "bad cop," constantly reminding people to update their tickets and threatening to announce that the launch date was at risk when something slipped. At one point, I even said that I would be exclusively communicating through the ticket system, and would no longer discuss project work over chat or email. I made this decision to prevent us from having redundant discussions and to encourage us to systematically document our decisions.

After a few weeks, our team began working much more efficiently. I realized that by maintaining firm boundaries, I was able to eliminate uncertainty from the project. While I was worried that others would perceive me as overly strict, I learned that clarity and directness are ultimately kinder than ambiguity. Uncertainty breeds confusion and frustration, whereas honesty fosters respect and understanding.

I'm happy to share that our project successfully launched earlier this week, right on schedule! Since my wedding vacation started on Friday, we affectionately named our approach, "wedding-driven development".

Boundaries for Productive Meetings

I've also been on the receiving end of someone setting clear boundaries with me. For example, one of my coworkers has a strict rule of ending work at 4:59 PM to prioritize family time. Initially, this boundary caught me off guard. Regardless of what we were talking about, they would abruptly end our conversation and leave.

However, over time, I became accustomed to their boundary. I learned to wrap up our conversations naturally and felt reassured during our conversations that they weren't talking to me out of obligation, if they really preferred to be somewhere else. Witnessing their commitment to family time also inspired me to prioritize my own, and set better boundaries between work and home.

Boundaries for Respectful Communication

Reflecting on some past experiences, I regret not setting clearer boundaries sooner. I think that many of my relationships could have been stronger, if I had communicated my boundaries from the beginning or voiced my frustrations when they came up.

In my career, I've encountered situations where well-meaning individuals have talked down to me, offered me unsolicited advice, or made inappropriate jokes at my expense. I wish that I had spoken up in these moments instead of letting them slide. Had I been brave enough to do so, I could have been spared of the constant uncertainty of their next hurtful comment, and it would have likely led to a deeper mutual respect.

People who need boundaries are often the ones who resist them the most. None of us like to take responsibility for our shortcomings, and it is much easier to paint the other person as the villain and ourselves as the victim. Setting clear boundaries lets us walk away from being a part of this drama. I believe that being direct we build trust with others. We show our commitment to being honest, even when it is the hard to say.

Recently, someone was frustrated and used me as a punching bag on a 30-minute video call. I took a day to reflect on what felt true to me. I then wrote down what I wanted to say, and the next day scheduled a one-on-one and said:

I need you to understand that if we are going to work together, our conversations need to be very different moving forward. It is not acceptable for you to speak to me the way that you did yesterday. If you ever speak to me that way again, I will end our meeting and hang up the call. 

Saying those words aloud was terrifying, as was having the rest of that conversation. However, by the end of the call, the individual thanked me multiple times for our discussion. They appreciated my openness and candor. More importantly, I am proud of myself for confronting the issue, instead of thinking "they should know better" and ignoring what was bothering me.

Boundaries as a Guiding Fence

I think of our boundaries as the fence we put around a newborn puppy. This fence serves to guide the puppy in exploring the world while ensuring its freedom and safety. The fence isn't meant to confine or restrict, but rather to provide a structure for healthy interactions. Just as we can adjust and redefine the fence over time, we can do the same with our boundaries. I believe that like our puppy, those around us are grateful when we establish ones that are clear and kind.