Let’s face it, for many people, setting boundaries, saying no, redirecting requests, disappointing others; all of these can feel intimidating or uncomfortable. That being said, across the board, great leaders are very good at identifying and setting their boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries is the best antidote to protecting our health from brain disorders like depression and anxiety. Boundaries protect our productivity and happiness by deciding who we let into our personal space and what tasks we allow into our agendas.
Relationships are tricky. Boundaries can sometimes feel slippery and mutable. The trick is to accurately perceive our emotions and to manage our behaviors using our emotions as guides. That means we are self-aware and other-aware and know when it’s time to give another the gift of owning and solving their own problems.
When people tell me that they are terrible at setting boundaries, the first thing I do is make sure they understand what boundaries are and how to read their own reactions to demands or requests from others. Then I teach them about FOG.
F.O.G. makes everything cloudy
According to Susan Forward, PhD (Forward and Frazier 1997), emotional blackmail is a “powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want”. They use F.O.G. to obstruct our view from the truth.
FOG is the acronym for:
The people who use emotional blackmail are doing so because it works. It uses our negative emotions and does not touch on logic. People who use emotional blackmail are also adept at punishing you if you try and play their game.
Sometimes people use FOG manipulatively. But if you are a highly sensitive person who needs to be liked, you may be very good at ignoring these three important clues and living in your dinosaur brain just a little more than you mean to.
So let’s go through those three emotions with some examples in the workplace.
John’s client for the last 7 years changed owners. The culture has changed dramatically and his accounts receivable says that they are no longer paying their bills on time. He calls the client who alludes to the fact that John has a lot of competition and he’s happy to look elsewhere.
John knows that he is very competitively priced but this piece of business is worth 17% of his sales. He is afraid to lose him so he smooths things over by absorbing the late fees.
When fear is in charge of the negotiation, we let others get away with things that we would not normally accept.
Betty has always prided herself on being organized and helpful. The company entrusted her to mentor Stephen when he first started. She took on this role with great determination to be an excellent mentor. Stephen was always coming to Betty with his problems and, even after 18 months at the company, she was still proof-reading and correcting his reports. She thinks that, having set a precedence, it’s hard to say no now.
When she brings up that it is time for him to start being more autonomous, Stephen looks hurt. He asks what he had done wrong for her not to want to mentor him anymore. He asks her who would look out for him while he was still so new in the business and starts talking about the stress of his upcoming wedding.
Out of a feeling of obligation as his mentor, she doesn’t know how to stop being so helpful and to set appropriate boundaries.
Henry hurt himself at work and missed several months of work. The doctor gave him a clean bill of health and at his return, Henry negotiated with his boss, Bill, that he would work shorter days because he found the crowds on the bus made it hard to find a seat. He took a later bus and left earlier.
After 10 months, there was some push back on this “special case”. Henry’s colleagues began to complain to Bill that Henry’s recovery was complete and that they were overloaded. Bill began to pick up some of Henry’s work to appease them and now did more overtime than ever in his career.
Bill felt guilt around his error that had caused Henry’s injury. Henry was adept at triggering Bill’s guilt whenever they had a conversation about returning to regular hours. Bill was being held hostage by guilt.
When doing things out of fear, obligation or guilt, we are not doing them because we want to. It may be a fear of rejection, a fear of losing love, or a fear of being punished. Guilt is a powerful motivator, especially when if we are made to feel responsible for someone’s happiness / success or lack thereof.
Most people who are crossing our boundaries are doing it because we never laid it out for them and put a limit to their behaviors or demands. They are in touch with their own needs and emotions, so it is our job to enlighten them and give them an appropriate opportunity to challenge and improve their skills and competence.
Let’s talk for a minute about the bully or bulldozer who manipulate your emotions to get what they want.
Interestingly, whether they suffer from a personality disorder like narcissism or have a inflated sense of entitlement, people who use emotional blackmail in relationships do not usually start off using that form of communication. More often than not, the relationship starts off as quite wonderful, warm, with a deep emotional connection.
When the blackmail begins to happen, the victim does not see it as part of the regular relationship but rather as something outside of the norm. They convince themselves it is temporary. If this person is like Jekyll and Hyde, I strongly encourage you to get some support to protect yourself.
Now back to everyday interactions with healthy people with honest intentions.
Imagine that Samantha was the main organizer for last weekend’s team building activity at work. Helpfully, in the last few months, you made suggestions that would enhance the team’s experience which Samantha implemented without complaint.
At the wrap up meeting, Samantha blasts you for giving her too much work for this activity. She did the work out of obligation and never said no. If she had identified that she didn’t want to be the “sole organizer”, this would have been totally averted.
Don’t be Samantha.
Additionally, out of guilt, you are about to offer to take over the next activity completely. Ask yourself if this is meant to be your entire responsibility.
Here’s what to do if we catch our emotional clues.
We need to get out of our dinosaur brain so as not to make a decision based on these faulty directors.
Once we identify FOG during a request, STOP. Tell the person you can’t make a decision right this moment and that you’ll get back to them and agree on a time.
If the person insists that you make that decision immediately, say it will have to be “NO” and move on. You may be surprised at how many people will give you more time to reflect when you say “it’s either no or wait -which do you prefer”.
Be on the lookout for the FOG in your life. Our emotional clues are powerful allies.