How To Use “True Talk” To Set Boundaries That Work

In our efforts not to displease or disappoint others, sometimes we talk too much. Offer too many explanations. And provide way more context than needed. In fact, all those extraneous words can provide an opening for the other person to negotiate you right into a corner.
In her best-selling book, Boundary Boss, author Terri Cole explores how the language you use to set boundaries can make them easier to keep or more vulnerable to failure. She calls it using “true talk” which relies on asserting your real feelings and sharing your actual thoughts (not made-up excuses or watered-down explanations). “Speaking truthfully is the only way to create the life you want and deserve,” she says. “Your preferences, desires, and limits are all things that make you, uniquely you.”
You can explore setting boundaries professionally and personally in the next WFF Exchange Network, Thursday, November 17 with Chief Talent Officer and Vice President with Schwan’s Company, Kari Ziemer. On the third Thursday of the month, Exchange Networks connect you with inspiring peers and role models in powerful virtual events that include live moderated Q&A with a top industry leader on Zoom followed by focused networking in small breakout groups hosted via Mixtoz. REGISTER now for the November event, Boundaries and Burnout, Knowing When Enough is Enough.
How you were taught to talk
Most children are encouraged to “tell the truth.” Yet, at the same time, young girls especially are often told to only say nice things, be cheerful and to make pleasing others a top priority.  
But not being able to say what you really want and to set your own boundaries can leave you investing a lot of time in other people’s priorities and feeling burned out. Over time, it also buries your authentic self which limits your ability to grow into your full potential.
Cole suggests starting your truth-talking journey by exploring the messages you received early on about expressing honest feelings. If your family was more likely to make up a fake excuse to avoid offending someone or would bend the truth to get out of a sticky situation, you might naturally default to telling white lies rather than engage in a difficult conversation. Many of us associate being truthful with being difficult, self-centered or even hurtful.
Write a new script
Mastering an array of go-to phrases can help you feel more comfortable saying what you really mean and better position you to protect your boundaries. Cole and others offer these suggestions for “talking true” in calm, respectful and powerful ways.
  • “I’d like to make a request” is a key phrase advocated by The Center for Nonviolent Communication that suggests using language that is as specific and doable as possible and that reflects actual requests rather than demands. This can be more challenging than it sounds because we often think of requests as calls for others to stop doing something (“don’t arrive to work late”) or for how we want them to be (“treat your colleagues with respect”) rather than what we want them to do. Consider instead a bona fide request such as, “Would you be willing to sit down with me for 15 minutes to talk about what might help you arrive at work on time?”
  • “I want to bring something to your attention.” This simple phrase provides a general opening to share how you are feeling and to “talk true” about a broad range of topics.
  • “I want to revisit what happened yesterday.” Especially if you find it hard to think or react in the moment, this short phrase can help you follow up later to have the conversation you may wish you had earlier. It’s okay to express yourself after the fact and reset a boundary or expectations.  
  • “Thank you for the offer, let me think about it/check my calendar/check with my partner.” When someone invites you to do something, there can be a certain degree of pressure to say yes even if it doesn’t appeal or if you’re unsure.  Give yourself some breathing room to think about it, check in at home etc. Then return with a simple yes or, “Thanks for thinking of me but it doesn’t work for me right now.”
  • “I can’t do that right now/in that way but here’s another option.” You want to be a can-do team player at work, but not a pushover who wears herself out — or even performs below potential — because you are overcommitted. The key to saying no at work is exploring options. Offer to help at a later time. Talk together about who else might be better able to take this project on right now. With your boss, talk candidly about whether this ask should take priority over other demands.
  • “Why are you asking?” Cole calls this a “verbal self-defense tactic.” She recommends using this response in a calm and neutral tone if someone asks you a question that feels intrusive or inappropriate. Women and people of color may especially need such a phrase for questions on topics such as your plans post-maternity leave or what you think of a high-profile news story involving race. Asked in a neutral tone, the question shifts the burden back on the questioner.
Speaking candidly and truthfully is difficult because so much of what we’ve been taught about communication involves ways to not say what’s really on our minds. But honest, concise communication leaves far fewer avenues for someone to breach your boundaries and talk you into something you’d rather not do. Register now to explore this conversation further during Boundaries and Burnout, Knowing When Enough is Enough, November 17 at Noon-1:30 p.m. CT.

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