The Power of Good, Yet Flexible, Boundaries
The real purpose
I am blessed with a devoted and competent sister in Cincinnati, where my parents live. For years, she sandwiched caring for their needs between being a mother to her five kids and a wife. When mom recently had a medical crisis, that role suddenly became undoable. I flew in to help them transition into assisted-living.
Since I live a thousand miles away, I can’t do everything for them in the way my sister did. Instead, during my visit, I did a lot, but I mainly got a lot done.
What’s the difference?
My visit was as much to see what resources were available to everyone, as to take care of doctor appointments, senior home visits and so on. I got my dad hearing aids so mom wouldn’t have to shout at him and so he could hear to handle things himself. I found a full-service mover who packed the house for them. I enlisted a point person in mom’s medical care as my ally in making sure the conversations that needed to happen did. I focused on empowering everyone to develop and use the existing resources.
Getting things done doesn’t mean doing everything
That included facilitating my sister’s transformation from doing everything to getting things done. I thought twice about every request. I declined to take my dad for a haircut off-site when they have a hairdresser in their new home because I wanted my sister to be freed from haircut runs after I left. Sure, the pharmacy is on the way to their new home, but the pharmacy delivers, so that’s another thing we didn’t need to do for them.
Like many employers, my parents had a habit of relying on their familiar assistant – my sister – and disregarding other available resources. And like many assistants, my sister had a habit of saying yes to requests exactly as made. A great truth was spoken when my father told her “the list keeps getting longer and you still don’t know how to say ‘no’.”
“At least he gets it,” she told me.
“You’re the one who needs to get it,” I replied. And bit by bit, she is getting it. Her visits are becoming more about visiting as she gets more done instead of doing everything.
This approach is imperative for me because I live a thousand miles away. Her reality is something of a “death by a thousand cuts” – one little errand that wouldn’t take long, after another that seems reasonable enough. (Kind of like how admins’ jobs become undoable over time.) Small, reasonable requests add up. The time is ripe for to change those “wimpy” ways.
A learned skill
Saying no isn’t easy for me either, but it’s not as impossible as it once was. My yes-saying habit was so extreme that I wasn’t the author of my own life. Early in my recovery, I decided to go on a “Yes Fast.” To break the yes habit, I committed to six months without saying an immediate yes to any request. I would pause, say something like, “let me see about that,” and only after a serious check-in would I say yes. If I felt resistance, I wouldn’t say yes on the spot at all. I would wait until I felt clear about my choice.
I was relieved when the six months ended and I allowed myself immediate yeses again. I now could say yes from choice, not default. I had developed (although not mastered) the ability to say no.
Phrases to help set good, flexible, boundaries
The “yes-fast kata” (practice) forced me to develop phrases to say no – or not say a knee-jerk yes. One phrase is, “can it wait?” That gets people to consider their requests. If it can’t wait, I’m happy to help. (Otherwise I wouldn’t use that phrase.) If it can wait, the delay gives them a chance to resolve it themselves, which often happens. If they can’t resolve it, we take care of it on my/our terms, not theirs.
Set the goal and go for it
The phrases are just tools in the quest to empower ourselves at work and at home. The real gold is in knowing the distinction between an empowered facilitator and an errand guy or gal. Make the distinction, set the goal and go for it. Trust me, if I can do it, so can my sister, and so can you.