On Sunday I woke up to discover critters had eaten our ripening tomatoes off the front porch.
How could an animal eat something right off the front porch?
It’s practically like coming right into the house, uninvited. It felt invasive. This is our food, not yours. I was looking forward to feasting on those tomatoes myself. There was a clear boundary and that critter, probably a deer, had overstepped.
Or had it?
It was trying to do its best––feed itself in the most efficient way possible and our porch, was a salad bar. A generous gift, not to be spurned.
Animals can teach us a lot about ourselves (I’ve written about what I learn from our cats here). Animals aren't people, of course. Most of what we get from them is what we project onto them, our view of the world reflected back to us via a kind of zoological mirror.
When someone crosses one of our boundaries, we take it as a personal affront. We think she or he did whatever it was to us. We tend to think the action was deliberate when the truth is, there is often no malicious intent involved. I’m confident that were I to interview the tomato poaching deer, it would say it hadn’t overstepped. In fact, the deer might say it was simply meeting its’ objective – to eat and/or find food for its young. The tension occurred because in pursuing its’ sustenance objective, it bumped into mine.
Many of us spend little time thinking of – or defining our boundaries. We move through life blissfully unaware until someone crosses a boundary with us. At this point ironically, our boundaries become painfully clear. Our hurt feelings can morph into this obstacle, stunting our own growth and damaging our productivity. And before you know it, the person that crossed our boundary, ceases to be a person – instead they become the thing they “did to us”.
I’ve come to believe that if you aren't very good at defining and honoring your own boundaries, you have to allow for them to be overstepped. If you are not sure where the line lies, how are those around supposed to know?
Here's a simple example. My husband will say “Let's go do X.” I've realized I invariably say, “Give me five minutes, ten minutes.” I delay his request – yet he doesn't do this to me. He doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that I do it to him, but I'm practicing affording him the same courtesy he gives to me.
How do you know when someone has overstepped?
Do you know when you have?
Boundaries are closely related to the subject of this week's podcast with Buster Benson, a former product manager at Slack and Twitter. He talks about disagreement and conflict in his new book, Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement.
Buster explains that his purpose in writing the book was to help us see how we can disagree productively – not only because conflict is inevitable, but because there is an intrinsic value to be discovered in the disagreement itself. He believes conflict management is meta-skill that we can use not just on the job, but in all aspects of our lives. I think you’ll agree the topic is timely and Buster’s perspective can help us all.
In my interview with Buster, he offered the following advice, “You have to be looking for damage you’ve caused in the world on accident, and repair it when you see it.” Wow. If we all moved forward with this in mind, what a difference it could make!
[Listen to the full episode here: http://www.whitneyjohnson.com/buster-benson]
This week, I feel inspired to reflect on my boundaries and examine whether or not I have communicated them clearly. And, I want to follow Buster’s advice. I want to be aware of damage I might inflict – intentional or not – and correct it in the moment — beginning here at home.