You may have unintentionally established a pattern of saying things you didn’t really mean, or making promises you didn’t keep, or threatening consequences that never came to pass.

The subject of teaching others to set effective boundaries came up in a recent training. In particular, the challenge of showing a client how to say “no” to someone who they suspect really doesn’t want to hear that.

It’s a big subject, but the clinicians did come up with a few simple suggestions that may be of use.

First, be clear. This refers to your intent, not your language. Know in advance what you hope to accomplish by saying no in this situation. Be specific. “I want them to stop asking me for money.” “I want them to understand I won’t pay their rent.” “I need them to accept that if they get arrested again, I won’t bail them out of jail.”

Next, be prepared to back up your decision with a reason that objectively makes sense. There’s good research to document that a simple ‘because’ significantly increases others’ willingness to comply. Conversely, without a good ‘because’, the odds of compliance quickly decline.

By the way, if your ‘because’ statement is a weak one– it isn’t logical, or it’s overtly authoritarian, or otherwise invalid– you inadvertently increase someone’s resistance to complying. And avoid classics such as “because I said so”, or “my house, my rules”– you’ll just start an argument, or create a new resentment. That doesn’t improve the situation.

Instead, put together a straightforward one- or two- sentence justification for having said ‘no’. Then stick to it. No need to explain yourself over and over, ad nauseam. Just remind them of what you already said, and that it hasn’t changed.

Third, refuse to argue. If you know what you want, express it clearly, and provide a cogent reason, you’re not likely to change your mind at this point. So what’s left to argue about? Second, it turns out that arguing almost never changes someone else’s views. In fact, it reinforces their own viewpoint.

They walk away feeling more “right” than before.

Fourth, you should be willing to listen. People want to be heard. It’s a measure of respect that most of us demand. The trick is to learn to listen without arguing. That’s a skill therapists study and practice. It would be of use for the rest of us, too.

Now, within families, there’s often an additional obstacle: Your past record. You may have unintentionally established a pattern of saying things you didn’t really mean, or making promises you didn’t keep, or threatening consequences that never came to pass. In short, going back on your word. When disputes arise, people expect to get their way if they simply keep at it and wait for you to cave. “I knew if I stayed on her, she’d give in.” The key to change is to start over, a day at a time, putting your new approach into practice so that others become accustomed to it. Behaving differently in little ways, you recondition others to, well, take you seriously again.

Once they recognize that, they won’t bother to challenge your decisions as often. And when they do challenge you, you’ll know it’s about something important, and they’re not manipulating you simply because they think they can.


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