Applied EQ #43 – Emotional Boundaries (part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of Emotional Boundaries, we talked about the importance of emotional boundaries and some warning signs of individuals with boundary issues.  Recognizing individuals with boundary issues is necessary for project managers.  Otherwise, our efforts to be more emotional in the work environment can be risky.  Individuals with boundary issues will play the victim, expect you to act in certain ways, or create other problems for you.  In this post, we are going to talk about how to deal with those individuals with boundary issues as well as provide links for individuals seeking more information.

A key concept of emotional boundaries is that we are responsible for our own emotions and only those emotions.  It is unhealthy for us to become too concerned with the emotions of others.  This can be a fine line for project managers (and other leaders) looking to affect the emotions of those around them.  What is the difference between healthy concern and unhealthy concern for the emotions of others?  How exactly do we respect our own emotional boundaries and those of others?

  1. Respond appropriately.  How we respond to the emotions of others is a key to our own emotional sanity.  While we want to use empathy to understand the feelings of others, we need to be careful not to become "hooked in" to the emotions they are experiencing.  We need to exercise our own self-control in emotional and stressful situations.  We need to chose our response carefully.  For example, if we can remain calm and steadfast when others are angry, we can help to defuse that anger.  We don’t need to ramp it up and get just as angry as the other person.

  2. Take Responsibility.  Our own response should include taking responsibility for our own feelings.  When I take responsibility for my own feelings, I acknowledge that they are my feelings and that I have a choice about them.  Before we can take responsibility we have to be self-aware enough to know what it is we are feeling. 

    This could be as simple as saying "I feel angry when you come late to the weekly status meeting".  Do you see how this is subtly different from saying "you made me angry"?  That is the difference between being responsible for our feelings and being a victim of others.  That feeling of anger is a choice that we made based on the circumstances.

  3. Let Them Be.  The flip-side of our responsibility is letting others be responsible for their feelings.  We cannot control others.  Often we need to simply let them have their reaction to our words or actions.  If they are going to be angry or sad, let that happen.

    This can be tricky for project managers.  We want to understand the impact of our actions, emotions, and decisions on the individuals on our teams.  But we should not necessarily change just because someone is going to get angry or sad.  We need to let them have their reaction.

    I recall an incident a few years ago where I had a team member who thought he should be promoted to a team lead.  I remember the angst that I felt since I knew he wasn’t the best person for the job.  I put off the decision because I knew he was going to be angry.  Instead of simply making the announcement and letting that person have his reaction, I tiptoed around it for nearly a month.  I lacked sufficient courage to simply let that person be, and let them have their reaction to the decision.  I was afraid of his anger.

    If you don’t learn to let others have their reaction, you will not be going for yourself.  You will be at the mercy of other people’s emotions.  You will be continually looking outside yourself and playing it safe. 

  4. You cannot fix other people.  An important lesson to me with regards to emotional boundaries is that I could not fix other people.  While we want to strive to be as aware of the people on our team or in our environment, becoming aware of others is very different than fixing others.  Trying to fix other people is an exercise in futility.

    Trying to fix other people is an exercise in futility.

  5. Apply the Formula.  There is a mini-formula that is often cited for working through boundary issues.  Robert Burney, though not the originator, creatively calls this a formula for emotionally honest communications.  It goes like this: 

    "when you do… __________" (some behavior or action),
    "I feel…_________" (an emotion, such as sad or angry)
    "because…____________" (the reason)
    "I want…______________" (here is what I want in the future). 

    In the abstract, this may sound somewhat, well, formulaic.  Let’s look at how you might apply this in the project environment.  Consider a situation when you have someone on your team doing something which makes you angry.  I had one like this once; several team leads who reported to me would drink alcohol at lunch and then return to work on the project.  Here is one way I could have handled the situation.

    "Tim, when you drink at lunch, I feel angry because I think it affects your performance and lowers the standards for our entire team.  I want you to drink responsibly and not come to work under the influence of alcohol." 

  6. Seek Professional Help.  If you are struggling to deal with individuals on your team who have boundary issues, you might benefit from professional help.  A trained therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist might help you to prepare better for dealing with those people. 

The books published on emotional intelligence are surprisingly thin when it comes to emotional boundaries.  If you are interested in learning more, you may need to look to the Internet.   Here are some additional resources I have found on emotional boundaries.

  1. This post from SHEblog.net was interesting.  Heck, just the idea of a SHE blog is interesting.  Based on the post frequency, this weblog may now be defunct.  Anyway, there is a post about emotional boundaries written by Roger Cavnaugh
  2. For an in depth discussion of emotional boundaries, review this post from Sanctuary for the Abused.  Just a warning that the site plays some of the most loud and annoying music imaginable so you might want to turn down the volume prior to clicking. 
  3. Try this group of articles on personal boundaries from grief therapist and author, Robert Burney, referenced above; be sure to scroll down to find the appropriate section.
  4. This post from Patience Mason meanders a bit but has some helpful information on understanding boundaries.
  5. Another resource for dealing with all categories of difficult people is the book Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates …And Other Difficult People: Using Emotional Intelligence to Survive and Prosper, by Roy H. Lubit.
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