Chances are, you have some strategies in place to deal with difficult situations. Students are great examples of this kind of adaptation. They learn test-taking skills at a young age. Things like, “narrow down the answer choices,” “come back to it later,” and “look back at the passages for the answer” are embedded in kids’ heads starting in elementary school, and those skills work all the way through high school and sometimes beyond. Some of us have been pulled over a time or two by a police officer and have developed a strategy for that- it probably looks like you apologizing profusely for speeding or having that broken tail light. When that annoying coworker comes near your office, you have some method to deter them. Maybe you grab the phone or become suddenly engrossed in something in your computer screen. It’s human nature to develop coping skills when something adverse comes our way.
Having different coping skills is great, but you have to remember a key fact:
Everyone else has them, too!
Responding to confrontation can be an art, and it’s up to you to to learn the common ways that people will try and keep you from setting your boundary.
We use coping mechanisms when we are faced with something we don’t want to deal with, like a big test, being pulled over, or an obnoxious coworker. When you present something that others don’t want to deal with, they’re going to use their own skills to wriggle out of the situation. We’ve all had that done to us, and as a matter of fact, have probably done it ourselves.
You’ve already read about how important it is to set appropriate boundaries, and you’ve learned about how boundary scripts that can help you do that. Since setting boundaries is so challenging, you can never have too much knowledge going in.
There are four common ways people react when you try to set a boundary with them:
Take Ownership. There is a small group of people who are confident and self-aware enough to accept their mistakes. If you present this kind of person with your limits, they will apologize and promise not to make the same mistake again. This person likely made the mistake because they didn’t know you had a boundary or because they genuinely weren’t thinking in the moment. Wouldn’t life be great if all issues could be handled this way? It’s important to note that if we expect this reaction from others, we have to demonstrate it ourselves when we make a mistake.
Unfortunately, this is a unique response. Most people will react to your boundary in one of the other three ways.
Play Comedian. Wow! Apparently you just don’t have a sense of humor! You didn’t get the joke! Lighten up! Some people will revert back to humor once they realized they’ve crossed a line. Both parties know that something inappropriate was said, but it’s easier to claim comedic humor than it is to own up and apologize. People who try this tactic are used to being let off the hook. After all, it was your fault for not getting the joke! Here, you’ll have to really stand your ground. The second you cave is the second you’ve lost your chance to establish the guidelines you want. What’s appropriate to you should never be a joke to someone who is genuinely invested in your well-being. Hold them accountable.
Change Focus. This one is a classic. Have you ever confronted someone about a behavior you didn’t like only to end the argument two hours later about something totally unrelated? If the other person is really good, you may have forgotten what the initial discussion was even about. People will use this tactic in many uncomfortable situations, but you’ll often see it when someone is confronted about something. Again, this is an escape route to avoid taking ownership of their words and behaviors. The offender will try to push your buttons about something unrelated, and before you know it you’re down a path you didn’t set out to explore. Maybe you’re upset that Sam was talking badly about Joey behind his back. You’ll quickly be reminded that just last week, Justin was talking about Joey, too. The two issues are unrelated, and Justin’s actions have nothing to do with what you’re discussing with Sam. Be sure to gently call attention to this and pursue your discussion with Sam.
Shift Blame. This often ties in with changing focus. Some people are great manipulators. In an effort to draw attention away from themselves, they’ll put the focus on you. When you bring up that the other person was inappropriate for, let’s say, taking credit for your original thought in a business meeting, they will retort back by saying that last week you took their parking spot. At this point in time, the parking spot isn’t the issue. If you really did take their spot, apologize and agree to discuss it later. It’s important that you try to get the focus back on their actions while still acknowledging that you made a wrong earlier. That being said, two wrongs don’t make a right, and your mistake doesn’t justify their bad behavior. If you didn’t do anything wrong, refrain from becoming defensive. Remind the other person that you are discussing their actions and how they violated your comfort zone.
While these four mechanisms aren’t the only things people will do to avoid a serious discussion with you, they are four of the most common. If you are on the lookout for possible escape routes, you can try to prevent the car from detouring. Remember that ultimately, you cannot control someone else’s actions. If you are continually meeting argument from the other party, restate your boundary one last time and walk away. Ultimately, you want to show the other person that your boundaries aren’t changing no matter what they try. You may find that they come back later with a sincere apology. Maybe they won’t. What’s important is that you set a clear expectation of what is comfortable for you. Those worth the time will respect your wishes.