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When People Go Too Far: 3 Ways to Draw the Lines

Your relationship with your significant other, your finances, your personal space—all of these are areas where people who are not welcomed may cross over and offend you. Unfortunately, most people don't know they've crossed the line until after they've done it. Few of us have the luxury of laying out beforehand where the boundaries are, and it's not until someone has breached that boundary that we have to say something. Unfortunate still is that few of us will say anything because we don't know how. It's an uncomfortable conversation to have. Even though we're the ones that have been offended in the matter, we worry about if we will offend the other person by telling them about it. We ask ourselves: Am I being too sensitive? Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Am I asking people to be too politically correct?

I acquiesce that some of us may be a bit too sensitive about certain situations. We read far too much into the intentions behind the actions. For example: A recent news story reported that a woman was offended by gift wrap in a store because the design had swatikas in it. She wanted it off the shelf. I have to admit, until I examined the paper extra close, I saw no evidence of it. When I could finally make it out, it did not strike me that there was some hidden message in the design as an affront to Jews. (The woman was Jewish and was looking for paper to wrap gifts during Hanukkah when she saw it.)

Nonetheless, when we feel someone has violated the boundaries we've set for ourselves, we have to help them see where those boundaries are. If I'm an extremely private person, and my friend decides to tell my address to someone she knows but I perceive as a stranger, then I may feel she's crossed a line. I have to let her know that I'd like to keep where I live private. This may sound overly sensitive to the friend, but it is my preference when it comes to what's personal to me. Others need to respect that.

One of the most important areas where lines need to be defined is when we communicate with each other. For some people, it's okay to have a volley with another person using coarse language and crass jokes. But for another, they may find the content and language offensive. They have the right to let people know that that kind of conversation doesn't work for them, especially in a work environment. If a manager gets angry and pounds the table and yells at his team, some people may not like it but think it's okay because they would do the same. Still, there are others who may feel that as adults, they don't appreciate being yelled at as if they are children. They expect the same respect from their manager as they offer to him. The manager has crossed a line. They may feel reluctant, however, to let him know because the manager has created a culture of strained silence. Keeping quiet can contribute to making their relationship insincere and shallow.

So how do we let people know when they've gone too far? Here are three ways to consider:
  1. Call the person aside one-on-one and address the situation immediately. Say: "I realize you may not know this about me, but I take my religious beliefs very seriously. When you make jokes about my faith, I find it offensive. I get it that you don't share the same beliefs as I, but I would appreciate it if you considered that some topics are too important to others to devalue. In the future, would you refrain from joking about my religion in front of me?"

  2. Acknowledge to them that you understand they meant no harm and may not have been aware of your sensitivity to their action. Notice in the prior example it states: "I realize you may not know this about me." Everyone's intent is not malicious. They simply didn't know where the line was.

  3. Be direct and clear about what you expect from them when faced with this situation in the future. In the above example you see: "In the future, would you refrain from joking about my religion in front of me?" Notice the speaker isn't saying the person can't joke about their religion at all. The speaker isn't censoring the joker's freedom to speak. The speaker is asking that the joker refrain from his or her actions in the speaker's presence. It's a matter of respecting other people's views in sensitive matters.

    The tricky part of most of this is that there are numerous lines, and different people draw them in different places. Sally may be a hugger, but her coworker, Leesa, doesn't like people invading her personal space which has a circumference of about a foot. Tiffany may not mind sharing all of her marital business with the office, and Megan shares hers in turn. But when Tiffany starts asking Jeremy questions about his marriage, he may feel she's getting too personal. So how do you know where all of the lines are?

    The answer and others will be further discussed in a FREE 30-minute webinar on February 10th at 10 a.m. EST. If you are interested in participating, click here to register. You will receive follow-up information on how to join the conversation. Until then, give people permission to let you know where their lines are. This will make communicating with them less stressful because now you know where not to tread, and talking won't be like walking through a minefield.

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