Communication Wisdom

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How to avoid making an explosive cocktail at work

boundaries conflict nervous system newsletter professional communication Oct 06, 2022

It’s time to talk about two red-hot communication topics - 💥boundaries and 💥emotions.

Combined, they can become a toxic cocktail and lead to various kinds of communication breakdowns. Throw in the work environment and this cocktail can easily grow into molotov proportions and blow things up.

So, how can you communicate your boundaries and manage your emotions at work with authenticity and integrity?

In a moment I’ll share a potent example of a time when someone used the emotion of guilt to avoid paying me for the work I had done!

But first, I’ll begin by busting two sneaky myths.

Myth One. Boundaries are taken care of by contracts. Sooooort-of, and boundaries are also interpersonal dynamics that are constantly flexing to adapt to different or unforeseen circumstances. This means they need to be reiterated or adjusted from time to time.

Myth Two. Emotions do not belong in the workplace as they are not professional. Have you ever met a human who did not have emotions? Emotions are always at play, whether on the surface or underneath, where they leak out anyway. It’s a matter of determining when emotions are relevant and appropriate in an interaction, and how much to include them.

As you know, I’m a big fan of relational communication over transactional communication. Relational communication is more nuanced and less black-and-white. This means that you can both agree and disagree all in the same breath.

A while back I was contracted to do six months of work for an event. The agreed fee was to be paid out over the period of 6 months, in accordance with the timeline of the event. Some was to be paid at the halfway point, and some after the event had taken place. The usual.

Then the event was canceled and the contracting party did not want to pay me for the work I had already done. Boundary-overstepping and emotional tension, here we come! Cue my surprised face and outraged emotions. To make matters worse, they wanted me to step into their shoes and consider how frustrating it was to still have to pay someone even though the event had been canceled. This was clearly an emotional manipulation tactic to undermine our  agreement, so they could get out of paying me. I saw straight through it.

Let’s take a moment to pull this situation apart so we can see it better…

The emotion I felt here was;

Anger that my time was not being valued, despite our explicit agreement, and that they were laying a guilt trip on me so I’d give up all my fee even though I had done months of work already. This put me at risk for becoming very confrontational or unprofessional, and damaging the relationship.

The boundaries I felt here were:

We had agreed to a fee that was to be paid partly while the event was being planned, and partly after it had happened. I had already completed three months of work on planning the event.

By teasing apart the emotions and the boundaries like this I was able to choose how I wanted to respond to each rather than feeling caught in the toxic cocktail of my strong emotions and my overstepped boundaries.

Now, it’s vital to recognise the role of the nervous system here. Your nervous system governs how you feel moment to moment, and most relevant here, it also governs your capacity to connect with others.

When something has upset you, you’ll usually go into a FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE response. Each response has a different COMMUNICATION RESTORE STRATEGY.

My conflict style is to FIGHT. This means that I need to take time EMPATHISE before I say anything, otherwise I can become very righteous and confrontational (hard to imagine, I’m sure 😅).

In this situation, three key things that helped.

1️⃣ First, I restored my nervous system. I meditated and also imagined their side of the situation before I met with them. This meant feeling how frustrating it is to still have to pay someone for something they did, even though you will not get the revenue from a canceled event.

2️⃣ Next, I felt into what was fair here. What would honouring both parties, and the agreements we had made together, feel like? This led me to a strategy of asking for 40% of my fee. I had done almost 60% of my agreed work, so I was choosing to be generous. The relationship mattered to me and I also empathised with their situation.

3️⃣ Finally I drew upon my sense of fairness and empathy in equal measure. During the conversation, I kept my resolve and asked to be paid 40%. I explained why I felt this was fair, given the original agreements we had made together. I was also able to empathise with their frustration of losing that revenue and not get caught up in feeling guilty about asking to be paid.

By the end of the meeting, they agreed to pay what I asked, and the relationship remained healthy. Perhaps most importantly I was able to flex my boundaries in a way that was responsive to the new situation and felt fair to both parties. I was also able to manage my feelings so I did not slip into either guilt or outrage while we spoke.

Pulling apart the boundaries and the emotions involved, enables you to make choices. You can choose to regulate your nervous system before you consider how to respond. You can choose how to draw upon the emotions you are feeling, and how to use them in the dynamic. And you can choose how to flex your boundaries, depending on the situation and the relationship.

This week we are answering your work-related communication questions. Our socials will have some tips rolling out all week, but if you have a specific situation you’d love some help with then send us your question.


Thea and the WWV Team

PS: If you want to know more about CONFLICT STYLES and RESTORE STRATEGIES check out this post.



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