Assertive Limit Setting, a tool to use when having difficult conversations by Violet Dhu

Difficult conversations are a normal part of our working life, especially in management or leadership positions. We need to give feedback, say no, have performance discussions and be assertive at times. And when faced with these difficult conversations, we sometimes go softly, use gentle persuasion or even avoid the conversation altogether. 

However, sometimes, that is not sufficient. Sometimes we need to set and implement limits quickly to prevent the situation from escalating and creating conflict or even creating an unsafe workplace (physically and psychologically).

Defusing a difficult conversation

One strategy to defuse or de-escalate a hostile, difficult conversation is to take a more assertive approach based on the principle that you have the right to feel safe, and you have the right to end the interaction or the conversation. This technique is called “An assertive limit setting statement”. A powerful limit setting statement communicates to the individual that:

1. These behaviours specifically are unacceptable 

2. You are requesting a change in their behaviour

3. The consequences of not changing the unacceptable behaviour

4. They have a choice in what happens next

Setting limits and boundaries

When setting limits during a difficult conversation, avoid referring to the individual’s emotional state. Instead, we need to describe the unacceptable behaviour and the behaviour we want the individual to use.

The most important part of setting assertive limits is to describe specific behaviours rather than vague non-behaviours.

Here are some examples of a powerful limit-setting statement:

  • I would appreciate it if you would stop yelling.
  • If you continue to swear and yell at me, I will have to end the conversation.
  • If you continue this behaviour, we’ll have to stop this conversation.
  • I will not continue with this conversation if you keep raising your voice and pointing your finger at me.

Be specific with the consequences and be clear with the individual about what will happen if they continue to behave inappropriately or aggressively during the conversation. The best way to do this is by using IF statements. Here are some examples:

  • If you continue to yell, I will end this conversation
  • If you don’t stop pounding the table, I will ask you to leave

There are a few things to keep in mind when stating consequences:

1. Use cooperative language and avoid statements like, “I am going to get you kicked out”.

2. Avoid using hot words (e.g., have to, must, and should).

3. Use “we” instead of “I” when possible.

There is a difference between punishing someone and applying a consequence. If you punish someone, then the punisher is using their power. When we apply consequences, the power appears more shared, giving the individual a choice. If the behaviour stops, things will continue. If the person chooses not to stop the hostile behaviour, they choose the consequences. 

In every difficult conversation, the goal is to resolve a problem and come to an agreement with the other person. However, it will be challenging to achieve this if the other person continues with inappropriate or aggressive behaviour. We can use assertive limit setting as a tool to defuse the situation and prevent conflict and aggression. 

If you want to learn more about handling difficult conversations, I am running a workshop on How to Have Difficult Conversations in Bendigo on 14 July.

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