A 3-Step Process for Setting Boundaries in Relationships

There is a lot of advice dispensed on the interwebs about the importance of setting boundaries, including from me. We are to set boundaries at work, set boundaries in relationships, set boundaries with ourselves, and so on.


I feel that telling an anxiety-filled person to “set boundaries” is about as implementable as telling a depressed person to “do something that makes you happy.” The recommendation is too general to be useful. Plus, both statements are lacking in emotional intelligence.


In Dr. Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, she uses some language that helped me operationalize the amorphous concept of boundary setting. Simply stated, Dr. Brown recommends that we specify what behaviors are okay and what behaviors are not okay. Excellent!


In my continual efforts to make productivity concepts as doable as possible, below are three steps for effective boundary setting.


How do you set boundaries with someone?


  1. Acknowledge the situation/challenge. It is important to validate the challenges the other person is experiencing and demonstrate that you are situationally aware.
  2. Specify that all feelings and/or certain behaviors are okay. People are allowed to feel what they feel. Additionally, it is okay to act on those feelings in ways that are relationally appropriate.
  3. Clarify what behaviors are not okay. This is the crux of the issue. Not all behaviors are okay. You must clearly communicate what those “not okay” behaviors are.



Here are some examples of boundary setting statements:


Mother to son: “I get that you really dislike your science teacher. Feeling frustrated with her and talking to me about it is okay. Snarky comments to her during class are not okay.”


Husband to wife: “I understand that it is completely stressful when my brother visits. Feeling worried and nervous is okay. Yelling at the kids is not okay.”


Coworker to coworker: “I know that coming to my office to chat is a stress reliever. Visiting once per day, around lunch, is okay. Interrupting me multiple times per day is not okay.”


Leader to direct report: “I appreciate your passion around this issue. The emotion is okay. Passive-aggressive comments are not okay.”


Direct report to leader: “I am impressed by the insights come to you at 3:00 am. Sending me an email at that time is okay. Expecting an immediate reply is not okay.”



Your turn to practice setting boundaries…


Here is an exercise from one of my training classes (that can be delivered virtually to a computer near you!):


Imagine that you are delivering a performance appraisal to the person pictured below.

A woman rolling her eyes.


Set boundaries with this person using the three steps above.






Feel free to type your answers in the comments section below.



Your boundary-setting next steps…


  1. I understand that setting boundaries can be an anxiety-filled experience.


  1. It’s totally okay to feel uncomfortable and not say everything perfectly.


  1. It’s not okay to keep silent and continually allow people to behave inappropriately toward you.



Much love to you, my friends.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at getproductive@melissagratias.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Sabrina Quairoli

    Many people do not understand how to set boundaries, and it is essential to say it in a way that does not demean the other person. I love that you included examples of what to say to help set boundaries.

  2. Julie Stobbe

    I like these 3 steps. When conflict arises it is easier to deal with it when you have steps to follow and they become a habit/process you use with ease.

  3. Julie Bestry

    OMG, change the haircut that that eye-rolling person is an assistant I had in my prior career. (Also, snarky under-the-breath, passive-aggressive comments. Were you time traveling to my prior life?)

    I love the way you laid this out. I think I’m great at setting boundaries, but perhaps the next step is delivering consequences. What if you set out these boundaries and your spouse still yells at the kids? Do you locks your spouse in the basement when your brother visits? What do you do if your leader still expects you to be monitoring email at 3 a.m.? Do you set an autoresponder between 8p and 8a that says, “hey, boss, I’m not going to see this, but will read it when I get to work” or do you burying him in a shallow grave just outside Reno, Nevada? Acknowledge the situation, specify OK emotions and actions, and clarify what’s absolutely not OK. And then…figure out what consequences will help you maintain the boundary. That’s the hard part!

  4. Linda Samuels

    Wow, Melissa! This is SO helpful. As someone that has worked for years on learning how to set boundaries, I love the direct approach (and method behind the approach) that you take.

    As a kid, I never learned to set boundaries because I was raised with parents saying things like, “Linda won’t mind.” That’s a dangerous message for a kid. And for a long time, I accepted that description. I was the youngest of three and was destined to be the “easy” kid. And it worked for a long time. I was cooperative, got into very little trouble, and didn’t complain. Sounds idyllic, but as you know, not really.

    It wasn’t until I was an adult (with kids) that I began to understand more about boundaries, the need for them, and how to set them for myself and others. Because if you don’t set them, it can be disastrous for situations, relationships, and your well-being. I still work at it, and that’s OK. I’ve come a long way.

  5. Lisa Gessert

    The power of setting boundaries..so important in life in work….the power of saying yes or no….loved this blog and it was well written….I love using and setting times for me to do emails, calls, chatting, family, and people get use know “i can’t call Lisa during 9-5” because I set my boundaries…so so important!!! There are things you just need to make clear!!


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