Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

“Good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost

One of my friends recently explained how much she values good communication in the workplace because it enables her to perform her job in the most professional way. She has a manager who is “frank” about his expectations yet is considerate in his manner of expressing himself. Her comments suggest that a healthy dynamic exists between her employer and herself and a climate of mutual respect exists between them. The employer skillfully shares his thoughts, expectations, and his feelings in many circumstances. His manner encourages her to accept corrective information without becoming defensive. My friend is open to taking in information that will support her in performing her duties well.

In all types of relationships, we will experience the most satisfying and productive communication if we maintain an attitude of respect for both ourselves and for those we interact with. The first step in good communication is to set a comfortable (or respectful) physical distance between ourselves and our communication partner. In a Western cultural context, we experience discomfort when someone stands too close to us. In essence, they have violated our personal physical boundary by stepping inside of an invisible protective buffer zone. On the other hand, if we try to have a conversation with someone from across a room, we may have the opposite experience of feeling a need to be closer before we can be truly comfortable continuing the conversation.

The concept of boundaries (as described above) is also helpful in thinking about how we present ourselves in regard to the emotional side of relationship. The ideal emotional communication boundary is like a clear encapsulating filter – its purpose is to scan all communicated information and allow only appropriate material to pass through. Remember that to be known by another, we need to expose ourselves through sharing our thoughts and feelings. A clear communication boundary enables us to appropriately reserve the most vulnerable emotions and thoughts to share with those special individuals that we experience as trustworthy and safe.

When we choose to talk about difficult issues, a clear boundary allows us to do so respectfully AND directly. As listeners, we exhibit a clear boundary when we maintain an attitude of wanting to learn about the speaker through their expression of their thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Listening to a speaker in this way, helps us navigate difficult topics with a solution-focused attitude rather than becoming caught up in defensiveness. The healthy listening boundary enables an individual to take in the truth from a critical statement without suffering a loss of self-worth.

Unhealthy talking and listening boundaries may be either rigid or diffuse. Rigid listening boundaries keep the individual from learning and growing because helpful information is kept out and cannot be accessed to stimulate change. Diffuse listening boundaries are in place when an individual is unable to depersonalize toxic or cynical attacks. A rigid talking boundary is operating when an individual withdraws and keeps thoughts or feelings private when it would be beneficial to talk about these experiences.

At the other extreme, diffuse talking boundaries are evident when an individual either does not censor inappropriate content OR when their manner of speaking is disrespectful. In the opening example, an employer would have a diffuse talking boundary if he discussed private information from another relationship with his employee. Being verbally abusive to the employee is another example of a diffuse talking boundary.

By paying close attention to how we talk and how we listen, we stay away from sending out toxic messages and we protect ourselves when harmful information comes our way. The development of healthy talking and listening boundaries is essential for intimate relationship. Paraphrasing Robert Frost, healthy boundaries make good neighbors, friends, co-workers, relatives, and partners!

The Intimacy Factor: The Ground Rules for Overcoming the Obstacles to Truth, Respect, and Lasting Love by Pia Mellody and Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin – by Anne Katherine