Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Set Boundaries for a Friendship

Dear Steve,

My wife and I have this friend who avoids crucial conversations. It got to a point where so much bad stuff had built up and festered that this individual “put her foot down” and told us “we are changing our friendship,” and “this is how it has to be.” We’ve witnessed a lot of self-absorbed behaviors, like dominating conversations, trying to redirect conversation to what she wants to talk about, and completely ignoring us at social events. Boundaries are being crossed, yet the boundaries are very ambiguous. My wife and I have both read Crucial Conversations. I understand how to create safety to have a conversation and establish Mutual Purpose. But how do we communicate our expectations moving forward, especially if she tries to dictate the terms of our relationship?

Feeling Bound

Dear Feeling Bound,

As you might suspect, this type of situation requires a significant, sustained effort to address. So before you decide to resolve it, you should ask yourself whether this is a friend you want to have in your life. As you consider the question, I encourage you not to say “yes” just because you’ve been friends up to this point. It’s okay to allow your relationship to change and shift.

If you decide not to remain friends, advice from Maya Angelou might be helpful: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” A “no” means you can stop reading here and back away from the relationship. If, on the other hand, you’ve answered “yes” to the question in question, read on.

First of all, I’m glad you found Crucial Conversations. It offers practical approaches that can make a difference. Let’s start with one skill from the Mutual Purpose skillset: Invent Mutual Purpose. You arrive at this skill once you’ve committed to discover what the other party wants and find a mutual purpose. At this point, you’re ready to define boundaries—though it’s good to double check that you indeed understand what the other person really wants before inventing mutual purpose. And when you’re “inventing,” you’re not just making up purpose arbitrarily. You’re combining your wants with the other’s to come up with something new for the relationship.

Inventing requires effort. It’s not always as simple as merging your individual purposes into one purpose that automatically becomes mutual. It often requires some time to work out. Those who are best at it tend to shift to higher-level, longer-term goals when they become stuck or tempted to compromise, whether values, time, or overall “wants” for the relationship. In practice, this means not getting caught up in negotiating requests like “keep every other Friday open for us,” but rather moving to a higher value like “how can we respect one another’s other commitments and desires and still nurture the relationship?”

A little side-note on compromise. Compromise isn’t necessarily bad, but people often fail to find a more powerful, longer-lasting purpose when they compromise quickly. Working through this all will allow you both to modify and alter your purpose until you both feel good about it. It will also you give you the chance to revisit our initial question: Is this a relationship worth keeping? You may find that your purpose is how to distance yourselves in the healthiest way possible.

Now, if this person doesn’t want to find mutual purpose, it may help to make visible to her what’s currently invisible. Sometimes people don’t see the impact of their behavior, so they continue without regard to how it affects others. You can help see the effects of their behavior by pointing out natural consequences. People don’t always notice all the consequences of their behavior. They act, others respond in a desired way, and that’s all they see. But usually there are multiple consequences, not all of them good.

To successfully inspire a person to change his or her behavior with this skill, you need to show how their behavior is leading to consequences that they find undesirable. In practice, it might sound like, “You may not be aware of this, but when you allow a problem to build up and refuse to talk about it, it makes the problem harder to deal with because there’s a lot more stress and emotions that everyone has to sift through.” You may have to point out different natural consequences before you discover the one, or few, that resonates with the person. And they may need some time to think of things before they are ready to respond.

If you approach this conversation with the intent to understand and love, you’ll compensate for less-than-perfect word choices you might make in the process.

Best of luck,

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4 thoughts on “How to Set Boundaries for a Friendship”

  1. Tanya R Hellams

    Wow, this was so meaningful to me. I have or had a friend of over 30 years and she was so obnoxious for so long and never took any of the comments about her behavior from others or me seriously. My husband would say she is selfish and narcissistic and I would say no she is just lonely. Well, she showed all the way out at a milestone birthday and I wrote her a letter and told her how I felt about her behavior and quantified each incident and its impact on my emotions and the other party goers without using extreme language. I started with my heart and mastered my story. She did not respond to my letter and I continued to reach out to her for six months trying to make it safe for her to discuss the letter and how it made her feel, trying to establish mutual purpose and respect, to no avail. I finally stepped away. I told her that when she was ready to talk I would be there. It was hurtful that she could just not respond. My letter was not mean just matter of fact about the situation. I made it safe for her to respond and she has not. So yes, the relationship was worth keeping however, she does not feel this way as we are 18 months after the fact and still no response. Sometimes after you have given your all you have to allow the person to come to terms with their emotions and just have patience.

    I live by the tenants of Crucial Conversation and have taught the skills to my kids whom I think have better conversations in their adult life. Life is hard and sometimes there are no answers and we have to learn to be ok with the open end of life.

    Thank you for listening,
    Tanya H.

  2. Steve Willis

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve found that influence comes over the course of many interactions/conversations. And, that how people choose to respond can be tough.

  3. Hanne

    I looooooove Crucial Conversations and these practical Q&A’s, all of it so valuable if you ‘re ready and willing to see the bigger picture and work on it. In order to move through life with more ease and fun. I like the lightness of these sometimes emotional, heavy, subjects and questions. It helps digest it better, and work on it faster. Love it.
    Hanne from Communication

  4. ajay

    It’s the best that I have read so far concerning friendship and work colleagues to deal with individuals who are not aware of their impact to their environment.

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