On drawing lines

“I’ve just about had enough.”

A phrase most often coupled by parents with “Don’t make me come back there.”

Some how, some way, we all want to set boundaries on what we can live with.  And often, we want to back that up with some promise of force or other action if any one is so bold as to cross that line.  After all, don’t people need to know that invading boundaries invokes consequences?

I’m a boundary-loving person — but not big on consequences.  That’s not to say that I don’t impose consequences.  I’m just not thrilled about it.

Yet, consequences are a natural . . . well, uh . . . consequence of life.  Any action I take or word I speak holds tremendous potential for ripples.  And when the boundaries are the right ones, then the attendant, well-reasoned consequences serve a noble purpose — even if the consequences are difficult.

But what happens if my “line in the sand” is misplaced?

Perhaps because of my distaste for imposing consequences, I’m fairly even-handed in dealing them out.  My difficulty, it seems, comes in staking out the wrong boundaries or sometimes the right boundaries for the wrong reasons.  That’s not to say that the lines I draw aren’t close to the right vicinity.  However, if I can’t explain why they’re there, do I dare defend them?

William Ury in his book, The Power of a Positive No, addresses this problem with his concept of packaging a “No” as three answers.  The first answer is a “Yes!” to yourself and your own values.  The second is a firm “No.” to the person or persons making demands or asking you to shift your boundaries.  The final answer is a “Yes?” that can spur further conversation.

Even though I violated all sorts of writing styles in including them, the punctuation on those answers is important.  The exclamation point on the first “Yes!” shows the enthusiasm and positive energy we should feel in recognizing where our own interests are.  The period on the “No.” makes it a calm, flat statement.  A negative answer is often delivered with anxiety and in a way that provokes argument or, even worse, ends all conversation.  A healthy, well-meaning “No” leaves room for continued dialog.  The question mark on the final “Yes?” invites others into a discussion of what could be.  In other words, “Yes?” says, “Your position or request is outside of my current boundaries.  Could we talk about our common interests and see if there is some place we could agree?  Who knows?  Perhaps our boundaries could use adjustment.”

I’m not sure that my “first yes” in all situations bears that exclamation point.  I doubt whether I’ve always invested in discovering and testing those personal boundaries. Since it’s the first piece of a positive “no,” my work is cut out for me.

I’ll be taking drawing lessons in the near future.  Who would have thought that sketching an exclamation point could present such a challenge?

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