© 2015 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and L. Georgi DiStefano
Setting limits is hard to do. It’s one of the things that parents, managers and professionals most dislike doing. It’s far easier in the short term to be the friendly guy or gal, or to just avoid the situation. Yet in today’s world – where the rules are vague and people are encouraged to believe in themselves and challenge authority – there is a real need for clear limit-setting that stops harmful behavior, to others or to oneself.
When dealing with “high-conflict” people in close relationships or at work, it is especially important to set limits on their unrestrained aggressive behavior, yet to do it in a way that doesn’t make things worse. They can be highly defensive, especially when treated in an uncaring and disrespectful manner. This article explains an approach that is simple and doable, even for those who hate to set limits, and especially designed for dealing with high-conflict people who push the normal boundaries. But you can use this method with anyone, so it doesn’t matter if they are high-conflict or not.
Setting limits most effectively includes at least the following:
1. Stay Calm:
Upset people – and especially high-conflict people – have a hard time managing their own emotions. 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. By this we don’t mean having no emotions or being emotionally withdrawn. Stay calm, but show interest in the person with whom you want to set limits.
2. Desired Behavior:
Rather than focusing on the behavior you don’t want, put the emphasis on the behavior you do want. This is part of our “feed forward” approach to dealing with high-conflict people (explained in more depth in our new book It’s All Your Fault at Work!).
“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.
3. Your Consequences:
Rather than trying to control the other person’s behavior, 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.
If you’re a parent talking to a child, then it can be helpful to say “I won’t be driving you to your friend’s house, unless you get your homework done in the next hour.” It’s what you won’t be doing, rather than getting upset about them not doing their homework. You can even frame it as a choice, so that they take responsibility for not getting a ride – rather than just blaming you. “It’s up to you!” you can say. “It’s your choice.”
If you’re in a relationship that’s not working for you, you could say: “I really want you to go to couples counseling with me. I think it will help us communicate better.” You might also say: “If you don’t, then I’m seriously thinking of moving out and deciding what to do next.” Or, if you don’t feel safe saying that (emotionally or physically), you have the right to say it to yourself, and if the other person doesn’t do the desired behavior, then you can proceed to take the action – your consequence – that you have planned. It is much more realistic to focus on what you can do, rather than trying to control what the other person does (since you can’t).
At work, a supervisor 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.”
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.
You might consider meeting with a workplace EAP (Employee Assistance Professional) or outside therapist or coach to help you determine consequences that are realistic and may be helpful to creating the desired behavior you seek. It’s important not to over-react or be retaliatory, but to carefully consider the options available to your. An EAP or therapist/coach could help you put in perspective reasonable ways to accomplish your goals.
4. Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.®)
Throughout the process of setting limits, it helps to communicate empathy, attention and respect. (See article Calming Upset People with E.A.R.®) While this may be the opposite of what you feel like doing, or may not feel “forceful” enough, it actually is more effective with high-conflict people, children and most of us. Research indicates that even “constructive criticism” is still criticism, with the result that it reduces the ability of the listener’s brain to change their behavior, rather than increasing or motivating them.
What motivates people more is seeing how their behavior can move them closer to their goals, rather than just avoiding punishment – which triggers a crisis response in the brain, moving blood away from the brain and preparing the person for fight or flight defensive responses. (Cultivating Creativity: Brain Scans show the power of compassionate coaching. Think: The Magazine of Case Western Reserve University. Spring/Summer 2014.)
Therefore, it helps to create a sense of We by connecting with empathy, attention and respect. “This year, we really need to get our reports in on time. Let’s look at how we can solve this problem. What ideas do you have for your reports? What would you like to accomplish? Let’s talk about how I could support you in doing that.” Empathy is something we feel towards those we care about and feel equal to, and whose circumstances we can imagine being in ourselves (such as having cancer). Sympathy is often felt towards those we look down on and don’t feel that we could ever share their pain (such as severe poverty). It helps to treat the people around us, including employees and clients, as though we were equals and have a sense of shared problems and goals.
Studies of feedback from people who have been to court repeatedly show that the way they were treated (respectful attention, etc.) was more important to them than the outcome. (Rieke, R. and Stutman, R. Communication in Legal Advocacy, 1990) Studies have also shown that doctors who treat their patients in a domineering way are sued more often than doctors who show more empathy and concern. (Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, 2005) The lesson is that no matter whether you have good news or bad news – or are setting limits – it’s better to deliver it with a compassionate style that emphasizes Empathy, Attention and Respect.
For the purposes of explaining this method, we have used common and simple examples. However, even when employers fire employees and judges send defendants to prison, how it is done can make all the difference in the world for the individual and for those around him or her. By setting limits with empathy, attention and respect, high-conflict people are less likely to over-react as much and ordinary people may show their appreciation – in future encounters, referrals to your business or in more peace in the family. It doesn’t cost anything to treat people with empathy, attention and respect. The real consequences – such as not giving a ride or moving out of the relationship – are what enforce your limit setting, not a hostile tone of voice or empty threats.
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.
Georgi 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