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Conversational Boundaries

In my previous post, Seven Types of Boundaries at Work, I defined what boundaries are, how they can be helpful, and the seven different types you may need at work. Then we looked at physical boundaries in greater depth.

Today we'll dig into another kind of boundary you'll likely experience at work -- conversational boundaries.

Conversational Boundaries – To decide if and when a topic is discussable and for how long

We have enough stress at work and don't need to add to it in our casual conversations with coworkers. That's where conversational boundaries come in. Conversational boundaries are about what kind of discussion topics, personal questions, and gossip you’ll engage with and for how long. 

As you can imagine, your conversational boundaries at work may be very different than they are at home (especially if you're in HR). I have been known to actively shut down conversations at work that I engage in regularly with my friends on weekends.

Conversational boundaries give you back some of the freedom you enjoy when you decide what to talk about.

But let me pause here to say, however, that there are important conversations that need to be had that may still make you uncomfortable. Receiving difficult feedback, disagreeing with colleagues, or discussing your contribution to a racist system may cause you to feel stress. But that doesn't mean you should shut down the conversation or erect a conversational barrier around the topic. It does, however, mean you are allowed to voice your discomfort and ask for the time and space you need to process the information.

Violations of a conversational boundary could include:

  • Hate speech

  • Politically charged conversations

  • Boisterous arguments (if you don’t like those)

  • Continuing on in an argument after you’ve asked for a break

  • Any conversational topics that make you or others in the room uncomfortable

I used to share an office with a terrific colleague, Fernando. And because our jobs were Trainer and Help Desk, people came to us regularly to ask for help and to complain. We must have listened to HOURS of complaints from employees, and it started to take a toll on us. We couldn't exactly kick people out of our office -- we were there to help, after all -- but we couldn't take it anymore, especially from people who we saw as friends and peers.

We both agreed to make a rule for our office -- a boundary, if you will -- that people could come and sit in our Visitor's Chair (we had only one extra seat in the office) and they could complain for 5 minutes. We set a timer, and when the timer went off, they either had to switch to problem-solving or leave. (We did not enforce this for people who we did not see as friends, by the way. Knowing your audience is key.) Some people left, but most switched to problem-solving and actually came up with great options.

Now, not everyone is comfortable making others aware of how much they complain. Fernando and I were. Your boundary will be different from ours. But we were leaving the office at the end of the day feeling drained and defeated and discovered one simple boundary we could enforce, and it made a huge difference.

Asserting conversational boundaries can sound like:

  • “I would rather not be a part of this discussion.”

  • "I want to participate meaningfully, but I need some time to digest this."

  • “This conversation is making me uncomfortable and I’d like to change topics.”

  • “I don’t talk about [insert anything] at work (or on a first date, or with strangers).”

  • "You're terrific and I love working with you but I don't want to know about your dating life."

Simply shouting "TMI!" and running away may be a solution the first time your boss talks about his pus-infested big toe, but if he keeps talking about gross body stuff and making you uncomfortable, you'll need to be clear about what you don't want to discuss.

What simple conversational boundary could you put in place to make your work life


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