Where Is the Line between You and Me?

A couple of months ago I wrote in the article “What’s a Leader to Do?” a list which included this: “Respect the boundary between yourself and others.” Several of you asked to hear more about this question. Human relationships, both personal and professional, work better when people have enough emotional space between them. The issue of boundaries shows up in a number of ways:

1. Decision-making. At times of high anxiety, people tend to crowd together-what Edwin Friedman called “herding” (see his excellent reissued book A Failure of Nerve) They insistently recruit others for their point of view, they stigmatize those who have a different perspective, and they assume they know best. As leaders, we bear key responsibilities, and there are decisions we have to make, and not everyone will be happy. But when we allow people their own opinion rather than willfully insisting they agree, we make room for them to come along. Can you give someone room to say, “I disagree?” One church leader put it this way: “You can disagree and stay.”

2. Relating to individuals in need. Those in the helping professions especially can offer that help in a way that crosses boundaries. I notice as a parent when I get anxious I give too much advice, in a way my kids can’t even begin to hear. When someone is facing life challenges, leaders can often become invasively helpful. Some questions: are they asking for help or advice? Is this a short-term need or a chronic situation? How does this use of time fit with wider goals?

3. Helping others grow in their work. The balance here is giving appropriate help, without crossing a boundary. Overfunctioning for people by stepping in unnecessarily will not help them grow. On other hand, those who are learning do need connection and support. When leaders are too distant or set too rigid boundaries, that can be as much of a problem as hovering too closely.

All of these come back to yourself as a leader and how you manage yourself. Managing self is the most important daily task of leadership. When you stay calmer, you can think more clearly about where the line is between yourself and others.

2 replies on “Where Is the Line between You and Me?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Yes, you are right that it’s an art. It would be nice if there were a formula, but it’s really more about paying attention in the moment. Having some principles thought out in advance is a good idea, but we still have to show up.

  • R.T. Miller

    Once again I am reminded the “helping profession” is less a social science and more a studied/practiced art form. The relational nuances to which you allude are subtle and contextual. Thanks for the reminders.


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