Boundaries Face to Face

Cloud, Henry, and John Sims Townsend. 2003. Boundaries face to face: how to have that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

I found this book very helpful and wanted to share a little bit about it. The book is about how to handle confrontational talks but the goal is not to have a confrontation but to improve the relationship between two people. Since reading it, I have started to put several aspects into practice and saw how it makes a difference.

What are the aspects of a helpful ‘confrontation’? The table of contents provides a great overview over the important ingredients:

Part 1 – Why do you need to have that difficult conversation?

  • The talk can change your life
  • The benefits of a good conversation

Part 2 – The essentials of as good conversation

  • Be emotionally present
  • Be clear about “You” and “I”
  • Clarify the problem
  • Balance grace and truth
  • Stay on task
  • Use the formula, when you do “A,” I feel “B”
  • Affirm and validate
  • Apologize for your part in the problem
  • Avoid “shoulds”
  • Be an agent for change
  • Be specific
  • Differentiate between forgiving and trusting

Part 3 – Seeing how it is done

  • Telling people what you want
  • Making someone aware of a problem
  • Stopping a behavior
  • Dealing with blame, counterattack and other problems

Part 4 – Getting yourself ready to have the conversation

  • Why you need to be ready
  • How to get ready

Part 5 – Having the difficult conversation with people in your life

  • With your spouse
  • With someone you’re dating
  • With your child
  • With your parents
  • With adult children
  • At work
  • With people in authority

Let me underline some points that I found especially helpful:

–         The importance of preparing yourself for a difficult talk and not feeling embarrassed about it, but explaining that I easily lose the thread and might say things that I did not mean to say and forget things that I find important;

–         Name the problem and don’t let yourself be distracted, by neither yourself nor your dialogue partner. It happens so easily that you get on a tangent. I often fall into the trap of bring up other situations that are similar, but mentioning them all can get overwhelming.

–         Saying honestly what the behavior of the other person causes in you and be specific. Putting this in words can be quite difficult but if I work on this during the preparation, it is a first step towards a solution.

–         The same applies to concrete suggestion of what need to be changed. This can be a challenge but when I think through this during the preparation and try to be specific, I realize what can I expect realistically and what not. I need to be aware that nobody can change completely from one day to the other. Therefore it needs to become clear to myself what exactly I expect from the other person and what is feasible. Unrealistic expectations only cause frustrations on both sides.

–         Don’t expect the talk to solve your negative emotions. They have to be processed before attempting such a talk, with the help of God and friends. The talk has to be motivated by my love for the other person and out of interest to improve out relationship, not to let off steam.

–         We need to honestly express our wishes and needs but not turn them into demands. I give to leave the other person the freedom and not manipulate. I need to be aware that not all my wishes will be fulfilled. It is important not to expect all wishes to be fulfilled, but to share even those wishes and needs that I know cannot be fulfilled. As long as I leave enough freedom to the other person, that’s ok. “Freedom is the precondition for any good relationship.” To not manipulate is one of the biggest challenges for me. Not all forms of communicating my needs are appropriate.

–         Accepting the No of the other person no matter what. If the point is especially important for me, it is better to bring it up again at another occasion. It is also important to express my understanding for the other position (and not assume that the other person knows that). Some solutions will only develop after we understand why the other person reacts a certain way, or says no, or …

–         Listening and asking back, and really try to understand what the other person wants to express. While at the same time avoiding getting side tracked. It is better to postpone side issues to another talk.

This is just a small selection of helpful points in this book. Since reading it several months ago, I noticed time and again how often confrontations are motivated by the desire to blow off steam and the expectation to feel better after doing so. This is basically the contrary of what Cloud and Townsend propose here.