#276: How to Set Boundaries in English Communication | English Lesson

May 24, 2023 | Business Professional English, Communication Skills, How To Develop Skills

You’re at work and it’s a busy week. You’re up to your eyeballs in tasks that must be completed by tomorrow AND you’re feeling STRESSED. 

Then, you receive a request from your manager to take on additional responsibility. How do you feel at that moment?


Or, how about this:

You’re at a family gathering and enjoying a lively conversation with everyone. Soon, the conversations turn to gossip. You don’t feel comfortable engaging in the conversation now. 


Do these situations sound familiar?

Both situations require the ability to set boundaries in relationships to maintain mental and emotional health.

The problem is, you’re not sure how can you do that in English.

When you don’t know the language you need to set boundaries with other people, you might feel powerless. 

Setting boundaries has been a hot topic of conversation inside my Confident Women Community

Here’s why:

Boundaries are an essential part of healthy relationships and effective communication and are especially important when speaking in professional and personal settings.

In this Confident English lesson, we’ll explore what boundaries are and why they are important, both in general and specifically in English communication. We’ll discuss different types of boundaries, such as physical, emotional, and verbal, and how they apply to different situations.

We’ll also cover practical tips for setting and maintaining boundaries, and the right words and phrases to communicate how you feel and/or what you consider acceptable.

By the end of this lesson, you’ll have a better understanding of how to set and communicate boundaries in English, and how doing so can help you establish stronger and more effective relationships.


How to Set Boundaries in English Communication

Why are boundaries important?

When we set a boundary, we dictate the amount of time, money, emotional resources, or energy we can, and are willing, to give to others.

By doing so, we make our expectations of others clear.

Boundaries help us maintain healthy relationships at work, at home, and in a community. They help us protect ourselves from external harm or stress.

Most importantly, boundaries enable us to explore and cultivate a stronger awareness of our values, beliefs, needs, and wants.

The boundaries we explore and set promote our well-being, as well as our work-life balance.


Keep in mind, boundaries are not synonymous with rigidness or an unwillingness to budge. Instead, boundaries are dynamic and reflect changes in your growth, preferences, needs, etc. 

As your comfort zone expands or shrinks, so too do your boundaries.

Step 1: Analyze the Problem

Setting boundaries begins with a deeper understanding of the problem. 

To analyze the problem, consider the following questions:

  • What is the problem? 
  • Why is this a problem?
  • What is preventing me from accepting the person’s comment or request?
  • What do I need or want to solve this problem?

Scenario #1: Let’s go back to that first scenario. You’re overwhelmed with work and your manager asks you to take on one more task. 

It’s possible that your answers sound like this: 

  • I have several tasks to complete and I can’t take on this other task. 
  • I’m already doing a lot and taking this on would mean that other tasks will be thrown on the back burner. 
  • Time and limited capacity. I don’t have enough time or mental resources to dedicate to this. 
  • I need this task delegated to someone else and for my manager to understand I’m at capacity. 

By answering these questions, you’ve shed light on why the request or comment is a problem, what you need or want, and potential alternatives.

Step 2: Define Your Boundary Circle

Next, to understand the type of boundary to set, draw and define your boundary circle.

    For this exercise, draw a circle on a sheet of paper.

    Inside it, write what you need to feel safe, supported, seen, and heard.

      Outside the circle, jot down anything you find intolerable, uncomfortable, or likely to drain your resources. 


      Scenario #2: Perhaps, a close family member often disregards your dietary preferences or needs. When you gather for family dinners, your options are usually limited. To further analyze the problem you may draw a boundary circle like this:

      • Inside: no judgment, questions about dietary needs, clear communication and open dialogue, acceptance
      • Outside: jokes about dietary needs, polite pressure or force to eat other foods, judgment, underhanded comments, unwillingness to understand

      Now, you know what you need/want and what you definitely don’t want!

      Step 3: Communicate with Clarity

      Now, it’s time to communicate and set your boundaries. 

      To do this, remember it’s important to:

      • Clearly state the boundary
      • Provide a clear reason
      • Use “I” centered language
      • Build comfort and cultivate the courage to say “no”

      The following phrases are effective when communicating your boundaries:

      • I don’t feel comfortable with X because…
      • I value your thoughts on this. I would feel more comfortable if…
      • I feel X when… because… Please don’t Y. 
      • I would appreciate it if you could X because…
      • Thank you for thinking of me. This is not something I can do right now because…
      • No, I can’t take on X at this point in time. Right now, I’m…
      • I understand the urgency of your request. Unfortunately, I’m at full capacity and can’t take this on. 

            Scenario #3: Imagine your neighbor often mows their lawn at the most inconvenient times. The loud noise often disrupts your meetings, thinking time, or mornings.

            To set a clear boundary, you might say, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t mow the lawn between 10:00 AM and 11:30 AM on weekdays. The noise of the machine is quite loud, so it often disrupts my work meetings.” 


            Scenario #4: Perhaps, a coworker often pushes larger, more time-consuming tasks onto you at the last minute.

            To set a boundary and put an end to the cycle, you may say, “Thank you for thinking of me. This isn’t something I can take on right now due to my existing commitments. However, should you need my help for any future projects, please give me a heads up well in advance so I can accommodate your request.

            Step 4: Reinforce Your Boundaries

            Even after boundaries are set, it can be difficult to hold your ground.

            This is especially true when the boundary is new and/or when it’s crossed.

            These situations will require you to reinforce that boundary again. 


            To reinforce your boundaries it’s necessary to: 

            • Be consistent;
            • Share observations;
            • Provide further clarify;
            • Provide next steps;
            • And, use a firm, polite tone.

            To reinforce your boundary, start by sharing your observations and providing them with context. Then, follow with a clear statement of the boundary and the next steps.

            The following phrases may be useful for this method:

            • I’m seeing X. It’s important to me that…
            • I know we’ve talked about this in the past, but I want to make it clear that…
            • I’m noticing X. I just wanted to remind you that…
            • It makes me feel uncomfortable when X. Please respect Y. Should this continue, I will need to…

            Scenario #5: Imagine a friend constantly making jokes about your weight. And, you’ve made it clear that it hurts your feelings.

            Here’s how you might reinforce your boundary: 

            Hey, I know we’ve talked about this in the past but I’m noticing that the comments about my weight haven’t stopped. I want to make it clear that this isn’t okay with me. I understand they are jokes, but if this continues I will not continue our friendship.


            Scenario #6: Perhaps, your coworker continues to miss deadlines and is late for meetings. She has made it clear that there aren’t any factors affecting her time management.

            So, to reiterate the time boundary, you may say, “I’m seeing a continued pattern of missed deadlines and late attendance of meetings. I just want to remind you that the dates and times for both meetings and project deadlines are crucial to our company’s goals. Should this continue, I will need to act in the best interests of our team. Please let me know if you need anything from me to help manage time more effectively.”

            Share your experience.

            After you review this lesson, share your thoughts on:

            1. Has anyone ever crossed your boundary at work? How did you handle it?
            2. How would you use the strategies and/or phrases from today’s lesson to handle the situation again?

            You can share your answers — as well as your questions — with me in the comments below. I’ll also add possible answers at the top of the comment section.

            ~ Annemarie

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