Thursday, November 3, 2011

Professional Boundaries Get In The (My) Way

I learned a lot about boundaries in graduate school.  I studied social work which has turned out to be incredibly valuable training in a world based on effective relationships.  In school we talked about not getting too involved, keeping our distance, not telling others what to do, but rather helping people find their own way.

Well…ahem…that doesn’t necessarily translate to real life now does it?

But I Know What To Do
This is really the challenge when it comes to professional boundaries, isn’t it?  We want to jump in and help.  But it’s more than that…we want to solve the other person’s problem.  Now we’re getting somewhere!  Results we can see, feel and experience.  Aren’t we terrific?  Damn right we are.  Except we’re not living that person’s life.  They are.  And that makes the whole thing so much more complicated.

Where Is That Boundary Anyway?
Have you ever said something and immediately wished you could pull those words right back out of the air?  Me too.  Lots of times.  It seems to me that moment of panic comes as we realize we’ve just crossed the proverbial boundary line. 

If only there was some sort of flashing beacon that let me know: Danger, Stupid Moment About to Occur!  But alas, no such tool is available outside of ourselves.  We must rely on personal discipline to recognize when that boundary is approaching.

Think With Your Ears
The strategy that has proven most effective for me is to focus on what I'm hearing as the other person shares their story.  The danger is to jump ahead inside our head and begin preparing our solution for them.  It’s not that we won’t come up with a useful idea that they may in fact try out.  But if we begin formulating a plan before we’ve heard everything that is being shared with us, we risk at a minimum offering advice that is off-base; or worse yet, insulting the person because we don’t fully understand their situation.  Leverage the power of listening in your boundary awareness work.

How About You
Are you going to “help” someone today?  If so, do you plan on being a know-it-all?  Or, will you be the one that takes the time to listen, connect, and leverage the relationship building opportunity at hand and avoid crossing that ever-moving boundary line?

I’d love to hear from you.

No Excuses.

pics courtesy of  watiyusuf and wl4j4life


  1. So interesting, I'm currently re-writing resumes and it would be so easy to say "hey don't you know better than too do this or that on your resume.." but that's the thing words are powerful, and we someone asks for help they are most vulnerable.

  2. It is sometimes a tough choice to go outside the boundaries, but in the big scale, it is a necessity. Helping others in need can bring a sense of accomplishment and give others much needed guidance. It is a tough time in our society, it should be a rule to help anyone who desperately needs it.

  3. Chris/Wilson - Many thanks for the perspective and comments. This is a good discussion topic!