A conversation that almost never comes up – at least directly – with my executive coaching clients is boundaries. Yet some of the most pervasive problems they face are violations of their boundaries.
- Someone talks over them in a meeting.
- Their boss storms into a crisis and starts barking commands without deep knowledge of the situation.
- A contractual bonus is delivered late.
- They are asked to take on the work of two – or three – without compensation or a shift in priorities.
- They are expected to work on the weekend, nights, and evenings.
- They are given a job with big expectations, yet without the resources to actually fulfill those expectations.
Every one of these is a real situation a client faced, and they are all a violation of boundaries. However, as a rule, the word boundary is not usually used in the corporate world. I’ve had my own share of boundary violations in my life. As much as I would like to have clear answers for these problems and a thorough playbook, setting and defending boundaries is much more complicated than that. All too often, we end up in a fight. If we are in a position where we need our job or fear losing the relationship, we might end up capitulating for the sake of “peace”. Frankly, for a good part of my career, I was not aware that there was any other way. Fight and then comply was my pattern. And once I complied, where did my fight go? Into resentment, held in my body. In other words, I took the fight into myself.
Last year, I ran across a video on Facebook done by Mark Langley, an Australian horseman who was helping a woman with an aggressive horse. Since I’ve gotten into working with horses over the last few years, I’ve found the parallels between working with horses and humans remarkable. When this video began, he captured my attention with his weird antics designed to move the big horse out of his space. He pointed out that his way was different than the usual way to deal with such horses. When he said, “they get angry and fight,” my attention rose a few notches, as I imagined the horse as the office bully or overbearing boss who insists that everyone do things their way. I saw a few useful ideas I could apply immediately, and then went on about my business.
When the video came around again this year, I saw the lessons with new eyes. I realized that the video is chock full of gold nuggets – some hidden and some obvious – on how to effectively set boundaries with the horse or human that keeps getting in your space without having to get in a fight. In fact, Langley shows how to do it out of a loving heart. It’s the classic act of Dancing the Tightrope: Not winning through power-over, nor losing with power-under, but instead, safely dancing together with love and power with.
I know a lot of you, my faithful readers, would love to find a way to hold your boundaries without fighting and to do so with love. I’m going to unpack a few of the gold nuggets I found in this video, trusting that you will find a way to apply these to the aggressive bullies, bosses, and others in your life.
1. Change Their Thought
The first thing we see in the video is Langley wiggling his body in what I came to call the “electric shake”, which caused the horse to back away with a look of surprise on his face. He then called out what he was doing by saying “He needs to know I’m sensitive.”
In this case, Langley is not using the word sensitive in the way it’s often used in the corporate world. Have you ever heard someone say, “You’re being too sensitive,” right after they made some kind of cutting remark? Langley means the word in a useful and literal way. The horse needs to recognize that he’s acting a bit like a bull in a China shop, and Langley shows him with the “electric shake” that doing so cannot happen inside Langley’s personal bubble.
Being sensitive is a good thing; it means you are tuned into nuance and subtlety, which is where deals are often made or lost.
Notice that the horse begins to stand by, suddenly paying more attention in a curious way, and every time he moves into the bubble, Langley does the electric shake. He also explains why he’s not getting after the horse or punishing the horse for making a mistake.
Of note is the fact that, with this “electric shake” method, the horse does not respond with aggression. He’s not perfect either. However, for the most part, he’s being curious. Why? Because this crazy guy standing next to him is doing something unexpected. And as a result, he’s changed the thought of the horse. The horse was thinking one way – “I can come in and do whatever I want to you” – and now he’s thinking another way, which is “what is this guy doing?”
If you decide to watch the video – which I hope you do – you will notice that the electric shake has a visible and invisible component to it. Langley’s visible version is mostly to show the horse’s owner the invisible aspect of claiming his space through energy. We can do the same in our leadership practice. I’ve seen the power of the pause, done with calm quietness, completely change the thoughts of a whole room full of people in the middle of a conflict.
When we are faced with the office bully or aggressive boss or someone pushing on our boundaries, how can we change their thought? What is the human version of the electric shake?
2. Honor your rules for engagement
Many years ago, a teacher told me “You train people how to treat you.” At that moment, it sounded good, but I had no idea how to implement such a statement in real life. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize this to be very true. We do train people how to treat us – and it takes something like an electric shake to retrain the people around us when we wake up to what we have done to ourselves.
As she sat on my deck at the beginning of a coaching retreat, Nancy (not her real name) was exhausted, drained, and ready to give up. Her high visibility job was taking its toll on her. I started by just giving her the opportunity to BE, without having to DO anything. With space, she began to have insights. When it came time to decide what actions she would take away as a result of this retreat, she recognized - in theory- that she had been training her demanding bosses that she had few boundaries when it came to showing up for work. They loved her for it – and she hated herself for it.
She could not imagine how to begin setting clear boundaries, so we went into the weeds. I asked for examples. She mentioned the early morning phone calls when they were visiting a client site. Her boss would call her at 6:15 am to discuss the day’s work. If she was still in bed, in the shower or drying her hair, she stopped to answer the phone. I asked her what would happen if she didn’t answer the phone. In the world according to Nancy, all hell would break loose! She was sure she would be fired. As we dug further, we found a core belief that caused her to pick up the phone. Since they were traveling for business, she considered all 24 hours a day as “work time”. She didn’t think she had the right to let the phone roll to voice mail. Once she had awareness that she could set different rules of engagement, she agreed to experiment with answering the voice mail on her time. In the end, she and her boss agreed to meet every morning at breakfast to go over the day’s agenda, rather than have her him pepper her at all hours every time an idea popped into his head.
Notice in the video how Langley refers to rules of engagement. He says, “I want him to learn a little bit about me.” Not once in the video did Langley allow the horse to come into the bubble whenever he felt like it.
Where have you set rules for engagement that don’t work for you? What core beliefs are you holding that cause you to build resentment?
3. Believe in Your Space
We can only clarify our boundaries to the extent we own our personal space. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this video came when he said, “I want you to believe in your ground, so much so that HE believes in your ground.” They had walked with the horse, as Langley repeatedly said “This is my ground. This is my ground.” Listen to how he speaks out loud the unseen energy of belief in his ground. Horses are masters at reading the unseen. Their first language speaks through energy and then body language. In the moments the horse chose to ignore the energy, Langley did his electric shake to communicate through body language. He never went after the horse or corrected him. It just made it mighty uncomfortable to be in his space. Body language is the bridge between the seen and the unseen, much like our breath is the bridge between our conscious mind and our subconscious mind.
Believing in our space invokes a tricky balancing act, one of the major themes of this video. Rather than correcting a mistake, punishing the horse or setting up a fight, he took actions that made the horse think “Hmmmm. how interesting” instead of “How dare you?” When I’ve allowed others to violate my boundaries, it’s usually because I don’t want to fight or to be seen as the aggressive one. My fear of being a bully is real! It’s also a false flag.
Somewhere between the capitulation of being a doormat and the dominance move of being a bully there’s a balance. The answer is love.
When I capitulate, it’s because I’ve failed to believe in my space. I’ve failed to believe I have the right to my space.
When I dominate, it’s because I’ve failed to believe in my space. I’ve given you the ability to make me reactive.
My client Julie (not her real name) reached out to me in a state of fury when her bonus did not get paid on time. She had a long list of well-deserved grievances, and she was ready to unleash them on her boss. To say she was reactive would be an understatement. She had drafted a long email and had the good sense to sleep on it before she hit the send button. As we spoke about it, she came to realize that she had gone from clarifying her boundaries – “I expect you to pay me on time”– to going after her boss, which would only set up a huge fight. We went through the email, removing all the language that had a tone of victimhood or attack and kept it to the clear facts, with questions that made the boss have to think. This was not a simple process, because inside of her anger and fear were her own questions of whether or not she deserved the bonus, her position and her power.
Langley shows this principle when he said “…They feel your strength. If they feel reactiveness, then you lose your strength – you’re giving up your strength.”
Before she sent the email, I assured her that she was coming from her own strength. My work was simply showing her what she already had. In the end, the email resulted in a much stronger, more equal relationship with her boss.
Working with boundaries gets deep because it’s not our actions or tools that communicate our boundaries. It’s our energy. We must release our old conditioning that tells us we are not good enough. Doing so changes our very being. As Langley said in the video “…I’m not giving you tools yet on how to train, first we need to teach you how to BE first. Once you know how to BE, you might find you may only have to do 50% of what you thought you had to do 100%, because some things change naturally.”
Brene’ Brown has a beautiful way of speaking about this balancing act: “Don’t puff up, don’t shrink back. Just hold your sacred ground.”
How do you dance the tightrope between capitulation and dominance? How can you believe in your space with an inner glow of love and friendship?
4. Create safety with congruence
I devoted an entire chapter of Dancing the Tightrope to the topic of congruence. Not only does being congruent create safety with others, it creates safety with ourselves.
“If the horses showed me anything, it’s that sensitivity to the energies around us is the most natural thing in the world. It IS the way of nature, and if we are to be true to ourselves, we must cultivate our feelings, not stuff them. Part of our authenticity comes from honoring our inner knowing and feeling. Being congruent means to feel what we feel and own it. In that way, we create harmony between how we feel and act.” (Dancing the Tightrope, 2022)
In the video, there’s a moment where Langley says “With horses, we make a lot of movements that we might not be quite aware of. We make a slight shift as he walks by or move our head back. But what happens automatically after a horse pushes us out of the way, is we might come back subconsciously and say to the horse – you get out of my way. We actually get in a little fight with the horse – but the truth of the matter is that the horse moved us. That’s where these horses start to erode a bit, because they should not have moved us in the first place.”
I’ve been guilty of this in both the horse and the human world. More than once as I worked with Bruce Anderson, he pointed out that I was double tonguing with the horse. A classic example is letting the horse move me and then suddenly getting after him, which sending conflicting messages: “You can move me. You cannot move me.”
Nothing erodes safety and trust like saying one thing and meaning another. When we don’t feel safe, we have to take matters into our own hands, and that sets up a whole different chain of events.
One of the classic corporate double talk premises involves micromanaging. The boss says “I trust you to do your job,” and then questions every move. I probably coach more clients on this one issue than anything else. My client Jerry (not his real name) was dealing with huge system crash when his boss, the CEO of a very large firm, crashed the “party”. He came swooping into the center with his hair on fire, barking orders and demanding explanations for how this could happen. Jerry immediately recognized that this would only derail things further, so he walked Jerry out into the hall with these words “We’ve got to get this system back up. When it’s over, I’ll take full responsibility and you can yell at me all you want. But you can’t yell at my team. In the meantime, the best way for this team to get things back on track is to let them focus on fixing the problem.” Jerry was able to take that stand because he had learned to believe in his space, and he had developed his leadership self-awareness to operate from congruence.
Notice what Jerry didn’t do. He didn’t get mad at his boss or go after him in any way. He also didn’t capitulate or suck up or try to explain where things went wrong at this stage of the game. He simply stood his ground on setting the best conditions to solve the problem in the moment and assured his boss that he would take responsibility for the mistake. It was Jerry’s way of being in alignment that caused the boss to breathe a sigh of relief and go back to his office.
We are reading body language and energy all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. We are also sending body language and energy as well. The more we become aware, the more we can line up the inner and outer world, thus creating more trust and safety.
Ironically, setting boundaries creates safety in the other person (or horse.) Watch the video again, looking for signs that the horse began feeling more relaxed and safer. Notice how he centers himself, when he licks and chews, when he yawns. All are signs that he is finding his own sense of grounding, balance and harmony, rather than taking out his uncentered-ness on the unwitting humans around him.
Where are you aware of incongruity in your workplace or life? How is it impacting your sense of trust and safety? How does your mindset shift if you begin seeing the boundary-crossing humans in your life as offloading their own insecurities onto you?
5. Radiate the energy of love
As I watched this “masterclass” on boundaries, I found Langley’s choices around mindset remarkable. He’s clearly very comfortable in his own skin. As a result, his actions and energy with the horse strike an elegant balance between loving kindness and firmness. It’s as if he’s saying, “I will not hurt you, and I will not allow you to hurt me.” The love he radiates seems to protect him more than the usual walls we erect to protect ourselves.
When my daughter Jen was going through her drug addiction, I had to find a new kind of inner strength that both showed Jen true love and yet protected me at the same time. It was one of the most gut-wrenching periods of my life. (If you are interested in hearing more about this story, you can find a podcast where Jen interviews me about boundaries on her Unbreakable Boundaries podcast here. Check out the other episodes as well, as her podcast is another masterclass in upholding boundaries.)
My default when someone violates a boundary is anger and then a fight. I certainly felt plenty of anger when Jen was going through addiction. However, no amount of justified anger would have solved the problem. In fact, this lifelong pattern of mine had certainly contributed to Jen’s addiction in the first place. I had to find a place of love in my heart balanced with a stance that said, “you can’t bring that in here.”
Watching the Langley video several times took me to a new understanding of boundaries with the aggressive people in my life. It’s possible to be loving and kind while also not tolerating nonsense that compromises my safety. In other words, when I uphold my own safety, I do the same for the other person.
If you remember nothing else from this video, remember the moment where Langley said after the owner had just done the electric shake “just stand like you love him, with a big smile on your face.”
Imagine being able to hold this radiating love mindset with the overly aggressive people in your life. What would it be like to stand firm in your boundaries without having things devolve into a fight – either with them or within yourself?
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wisdom offered in Langley’s video. I hope you will take the time to watch it for yourself. If you are watching it to help with a human boundary issue and would like help translating it from the horse to human world, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to help draw the parallels.
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