How to Build Boundaries not Walls

During my first days at AT&T I was assigned to an office that was large and open.  I was reading several books to learn about telephone technology so that I could become a certified AT&T account executive.  It wasn’t easy to study in that office since people talked, phones rang, and occasionally there was some kind of an argument.

One morning as I opened one of the books I heard some yelling.  It came from an office close by and I could hear every word.  Evidently an employee was getting reamed out by his boss because his performance was sub par.  She was not only screaming but she was humiliating him calling him names and telling him he would never amount to much.

I felt embarrassed for the person being yelled at.  Eventually the fellow came out of the office looking beat up and down cast.  He looked at me and said, “Sorry you had to hear that.  It happens every time I have a work review.”

Imagine having to endure that every week!  Clearly, he was not happy at work.  I was appalled and worried that that might happen to me.  I voiced my concern to someone at a nearby desk who said, “That is pretty unusual here but for the two of them it happens so regularly that both of them must be getting something out of it.”  I knew at that point I never would allow that to happen to me.

I’d like to say that at that point I thought about what I might do if I had a boss or colleague that demeaned me like that but I did not.  I just knew I would not allow that to happen.  Fortunately for me I never had that kind of a boss but that fellow definitely needed help setting a boundary for himself.

Setting a boundary is particularly hard to do with a boss but it is necessary for your own self esteem and survival.  Perhaps this employee enjoyed the sympathy he got from everyone when his boss came down hard on him.  Maybe he liked being a martyr. No matter what there was a pattern set up that only he could stop.

What about you?  Are there work situations that really entrap you?  Do you get caught up in something for which you kick yourself later on?  Look at my list in Parker’s Points to see places I felt needed a boundary.

The necessity of setting boundaries has come to me later in life.  I know that there were many times in my career and personal life I felt taken advantage of.  I never wanted to offend anyone so instead I let them offend me.

It is only lately that I see I need to think about how to set up strong boundaries and make sure that my friends and colleagues remain friends and colleagues.  Here are some guidelines I have established:

  1. Be gracious, friendly but direct and firm.
  2. Don’t back down.
  3. Don’t give excuses, debate or over explain.

You are not obligated to give anyone reasons for your behavior or apologize unless you have really hurt someone.  Saying simply “I’d like to help you out but I can’t right now” is sufficient.

Finally, if someone keeps over stepping your boundaries it may be time to warn them of some consequences.   The fellow whose boss regularly yelled at him during a work review could say to his boss, “I don’t do my best work when I have a boss who yells at me all the time.  Please stop yelling or I will leave the room.”

Ideally you want to build strong boundaries without creating walls between yourself and your work colleagues and/or boss.  It helps when you are dealing with making boundaries to have a practice partner or coach to work with.  I would welcome the opportunity to help you develop strong boundaries.  Please call me at 781-598-0388 or email me at


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