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Knowing how to set limits for ourselves and others

We all have our own needs and our own limits. They are part of our personality and can change over time as our personal and professional lives evolve. 

Peter* is reserved and somewhat introverted. He is appreciated by his colleagues for his kind nature and the quality of his work and never says “no” if asked to do something. When his supervisor assigns him new tasks on top of the many duties that he’s already struggling to cope with, he agrees, as he’s afraid to speak up about how difficult it’s going to be for him. He starts to feel anxious and to have difficulty sleeping, which has a knock-on effect on his work.

All the members of Marie’s* team have their work cut out to meet the objectives that have been set for the team. Marie is demanding but works very hard herself and gives praise where it’s due. She’s proud of her team and always expects them to go the extra mile. One of the team members, Elena*, is often the one who’s called upon when there’s an urgent job to be done. She has fewer family commitments than some of the other team members and never refuses, but Marie’s never-ending demands are causing her to feel anxious and uncomfortable. She blames herself for never being able to say “no”, whereas other team members have no problems setting limits on what they’re prepared to do.

Low self-confidence, an excessive respect for or fear of the management hierarchy and a fear of conflict or being judged negatively are the main causes of a lack of assertiveness, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. We all have different ways of giving our best at work and a different approach to coping with the difficulties and challenges we encounter. 

Refusing to leave our comfort zone when we’re asked to do so is not what’s at stake here. Our comfort zone is determined by our technical and behavioural skills at a given point in our career. Stepping out of it can be a rewarding experience when we receive the appropriate training, support and follow-up. Instead, it’s a matter of being able to say “no” at times when we feel that we’ve reached our limits and that trying to do what’s being asked of us would see our workload encroach further on our well-being.

People who find it hard to assert themselves have a tendency to take on too much, forever saying “yes” to urgent tasks and jobs that are not their responsibility and that build up to upset their well-being in the workplace. In many cases, they agree to do them in order to feel valued and appreciated. Contract insecurity and career implications are other factors that can make them afraid of saying “no”.

If we’re unable to set limits, we’re prone to a range of negative consequences, from feelings of guilt to a loss of self-esteem, anxiety and exhaustion. It’s not easy to stay motivated, efficient and productive in such circumstances.

It’s essential that we take responsibility for our own well-being and are able to say “no” when we’ve reached our limits. It’s also important to know how to say “no”. If we’re too abrupt and emphatic in our refusal and fail to show empathy, which can often happen if we’re afraid of not being able to stand firm against the other person’s insistence, the chances are that our response will trigger a negative reaction or even lead to conflict and this, in turn, will only reinforce our idea that it’s dangerous to say “no”.

If we want to learn how to say “no”, we can start by saying “yes, as long as…”. For example, “Yes, I’d be happy to take on the running of the working group, as long as you allow me to give up the other weekly meeting”. Or “Yes, I can certainly work late tonight to finish the work you want me to do, as long as you can give the other urgent job to another colleague”.

Assertiveness is an attitude that requires us to find the right balance between our own needs and limits and those of the other people concerned. It means expressing our needs and limits in a constructive and empathetic way, which is not always easy. To learn how to say “no” when you’ve reached your limits, start by saying “yes, as long as…”.

    Laure Esteveny

*)   Names have been changed

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