4 Ways to Set Limits at Work

©2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. & L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW

Whether you’re dealing with a difficult employee, co-worker or supervisor, setting limits is one of the most difficult and important tasks you can do to get any real work done. There are perhaps dozens or hundreds of people who may push your limits and divert your attention every day. This article focuses on four steps or ways of setting limits, that we call the CARS Method®:

1)   Connecting with empathy, attention and respect

First of all, it’s important to stay calm when other people are pushing your limits or just plain upset. Since emotions are contagious and people often “mirror” other people’s upset emotions, you will be more effective if you can stay calm and have them mirror your emotions.

Then, think of an “EAR Statement®” that you can say, which shows that you have some empathy for the other person (such as “it sounds like you’re having a hard day” “I know this is a stressful time”), that you will pay attention to their concerns (such as “I’d like to know your thoughts about this situation”) and that you respect something about their work (such as “That was a good job you did on the such-and-such project”). By connecting through empathy, attention and respect (any one of these is helpful, you don’t have to use all three), you may calm the person and the situation right away. Yet you would be surprised how many people don’t put any energy into this. It’s a surprisingly easy way to connect and improve other people’s behavior toward you.

This will also help you avoid setting limits out of anger, aggressiveness, resentment, condescension, vindictiveness or public humiliation. With this in mind, setting limits should be done privately, rather than publically, and one-on-one rather than confronting someone as a group. This keeps defensiveness low, so that the person can consider what is being said, rather than feeling like they have to protect themselves and fight back. If you are dealing with a person who has a high-conflict personality, this is especially important, because they are often acting almost entirely out of their defensive emotions.

2) Analyzing future options or choices

Focus on the future. We like to call this the “feed forward” approach, rather than focusing on “feedback.” Talk about choices, so that the person doesn’t feel trapped. “I want to talk about your choices in this situation.” Or: “Let’s look at our options here.” Or: “I have several tasks you’re asking me to do. Can you tell me your priorities?”

This approach keeps it on a problem-solving level, rather than an intensely emotional level. It also shows your interest in working together to solve the problem, rather than just blaming or dumping the problem on the other person. This also engages the problem-solving part of the person’s brain, which usually helps calm them and encourages creativity and behavior change.

You can also ask the person to make a proposal (“what do you suggest we do to improve this situation”), as he or she may be closest to the details of the problem. This brings out their flexible thinking rather than unmanaged emotional responses.

3)  Respond to resistance and misinformation

One of the common occurrences with setting limits is that the other person will resist or resent your limit-setting and attack back, criticize you or challenge the way you are doing it. “You don’t have the authority to do …!” Or: “Why are you talking to me about this? You should be talking to so-and-so!” Or: “Everyone else does it this way!” Think ahead about what resistance will arise and how you can calmly answer those questions or concerns, without becoming too defensive yourself.    

Also, if you are dealing with a high conflict person, they will often distort information with all-or-nothing thinking (“everyone else gets to…” “no one else ever…”), or jumping to conclusions (“are you trying to get me fired?”), or excessive fears (“what are people telling you about me”), etc. Be prepared to answer these with realistic information.

They also may try to involve other people; what we call “negative advocates,” who will support their opposition to your limit-setting. Be prepared to answer their questions and/or to set limits with their negative advocates as well. “This is a matter just for me and so-and-so to discuss.” “You may not be aware of all of the information.”

4) Setting Your Limits

All of the other steps or factors help lay the groundwork for setting your limits. This essentially includes:

Establishing your boundary, by focusing on the behavior you do want.
Clarifying the policy, by focusing on the behavior the organization wants.
Explaining what the consequences will be for not doing the positive behavior.
Follow through with the consequences if the positive behavior is not done.
This approach of focusing on what you do want is another part of our “feed forward” approach to dealing with high-conflict people (explained in more depth in our book It’s All Your Fault at Work!). This can also be used with anyone at any time.

“Please keep your voices down in the hallway. We’re having an important discussion.” This works much better than: “Shut up out there!” If you’re dealing with high conflict people (who are often preoccupied with blaming others), they will increase their blaming of you if you act in a manner which they perceive as uncaring or disrespectful.

Personal boundaries: If you’re dealing with a co-worker or a supervisor, you can say things such as: “I can’t do this right now, because I have this other project which I have been told is the top priority.” Or: “I’m willing to discuss the such-and-such project at the meeting, but I’m not willing to discuss some-other-project with those who will be present.”

Organizational policies: If you are dealing with employees as a supervisor, you can say, for example: “It’s important that we review and follow the HR regulations; or workplace manual; or legal requirements regarding …” This is a way to anchor the limit you are setting.

You can do this with personal boundaries as well: “The rules say that I can’t do (what you are asking) for anyone. It could put my job in jeopardy.” This anchors the limit in a reason that’s not personally criticizing the request, but rather company policy. This helps avoid defensiveness and resistance.

Explain Consequences: Then, you might explain the positive consequences if the requested behavior is done and the negative consequences if it’s not done. At a personal level, think about what you will or won’t do, if they don’t do the desired behavior. You can’t control their behavior, but you can control your response – your consequences – to their behavior. You might tell them what your consequence will be, but you don’t have to. It’s up to you.

At a supervisory level, you might say: “This year we have a new policy which requires us to get back to work after lunch right at 1pm. I expect everyone to follow that this year. If anyone thinks they’ll have a problem with that, speak to me right away.” The supervisor might think to himself/herself that hours will be reduced for those who have trouble with this, but not need to say this until the problem arises. By keeping the focus on the positive, the desired behavior is more likely to happen. This is much better than saying: “Last year some of you were consistently late getting back to work after lunch, which was rude and inconsiderate to those who did get back on time and got right to work.” Or asking: “Why can’t you get back to work on time after lunch?” This is negative feedback, which tends to trigger defensiveness and not lead to behavior change.

Follow through: It’s important to be consistent with delivering consequences, so that you don’t undermine your efforts by bending your responses some of the time. Your consistency will send an important message to the person (and others who may be involved) that the limits you set are firm.

It is also helpful to occasionally review with staff (if you are a manager) what the appropriate rules and regulations are. Time off requests, attendance policies, and other issues are common topics for workplace disagreements. Ensuring that staff are on the same page will help to reduce the fuel that feeds the sense of victimization that many high-conflict people frequently feel.

Lastly, if you are a manager, take the time to document your limit-setting meetings and the expectations that were established. This will be essential if you need to implement a progressive workplace discipline process as a consequence later on.

By setting limits with empathy, attention and respect, people are less likely to over-react to you. By helping people analyze their choices or giving them opportunities to propose their solutions, you create sense of teamwork in setting boundaries and improving behavior. By responding to resistance and misinformation with realistic answers, you can avoid becoming defensive yourself and triggering more defensiveness in the other person. Finally, by anchoring your limit-setting in policies and procedures, you avoid making it personal and have a basis for later follow-up and consequences.

BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of the High Conflict Institute. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He is the author of 20+ books and has a popular podcast and a blog on Psychology Today.

L. Georgi DiStefano is a best-selling author, international speaker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the recipient the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers San Diego chapter. She has extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as workplace conflict resolution.

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