Advice from Spill's therapists
Accept that saying 'no' is necessaryPractice being assertiveKnow your limitsRelated resources
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Creating healthy boundaries with colleagues

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees about assertiveness at work.

How can I progress my own career and create professional boundaries while not saying "no" when colleagues need support?

Our first therapist suggests...

Accept that saying 'no' is necessary

There is nothing wrong with saying “No” sometimes and there is no reason to think of “No” as either unremittingly negative or a permanent state.

For example, sometimes “No” might mean, “I can’t do it right now but I will do it later,” which, far from being wholly negative is an indication that you value your own time and respect your own schedule.

When we find it hard to say “No", it actually becomes harder rather than easier to progress a career, and impossible to both establish and maintain professional boundaries.

The most important thing to do is to know when “No” is necessary, and in so doing, lose your fear of using it.

It is inevitable that colleagues will ask more of you than you are able to deliver: that’s just the reality of the workplace. By being able to push back in an assertive and collaborative way, you build respect into the relationships you have with colleagues which makes them more likely to feel safe in relying on you when you do say “Yes".

People who are unable to say “No” tend to take on too much, over promise, and under deliver. These are behaviours that do nothing to further a career and mean that the professional boundaries that are required between colleagues are dangerously absent.

If you can remain creative when having to deny the request of a colleague and find alternative solutions where they exist you will find that people think more — not less — highly of you and, as your career progresses, you will have put yourself in a position where you find it easier to manage the inevitably more demanding workload and set of responsibilities that are placed upon you.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Practice being assertive

We can only offer time and energy when we have it, otherwise we will build resentment towards those taking up our resources. You may want to build stronger boundaries around what is OK and not OK for you to offer (at the time of decision). These boundaries have a buffer zone rather than being rigid to allow you to adapt to priorities in your and others’ lives at any given time. Some days you can offer support, other days not. Do you understand yourself well enough to know when you have the resources to give (OK) and when you are stretched (not OK)? It may be worth a one-off Spill therapy session, if you have access to Spill at your company.

If you are doing it to ‘people please’ or out of some sense of obligation, then this may also need exploration. Some assertiveness may help, too. Assertiveness is the communication style that falls between aggressive and passive as follows:

  • Aggressive: my needs are more important and must be met. Your needs are irrelevant.
  • Assertive: these are my needs, these are your needs. Let’s find a way forwards.
  • Passive: I have no needs/they are not important. Your needs are greater.

The simple formula for being assertive is:

Their needs (we hear and repeat the person’s needs back to them) …HOWEVER… My needs (we tell the other/s what we want to happen)….SO…..How shall we move forwards?

For example:

I totally understand you need someone to help with this admin at the moment…HOWEVER….I have a tight deadline that I’m struggling to meet….Is there someone else who could help? Or could we do it later?

There is no one right way to go forwards. You will be adapting to different needs, demands and energies at every turn. It sounds like you may need a flexible attitude; to offer support where you can, and honour your own focus where you need. And be able to build the skills that support this attitude — self-awareness of needs and resources, ability to say no with compassion, ability to say yes when you are able to help, and assertiveness to communicate and gather everyone’s needs.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Know your limits

I'm hearing that you want to progress your career, support colleagues, and create professional boundaries. The truth is you won’t always be able to support colleagues AND set boundaries. At times you may have to choose between one or the other, so the real question is about discernment. How can you know when to offer support and when not to? Nobody else can answer this question for you, as we all have to decide on the limits, rules, and preferences that we have for ourselves. That is unless you have a manager who gives clear and specific guidance and expectations on this.

Jobs differ. For example, in my work, which is high in autonomy,  offering support to colleagues is not a priority day to day (although I do it at least a couple of days each week). It might help to think about how much of your role is actually about supporting team members (is this in your job description?) and in what ways does this support generally happen? How much of your time can you reasonably spend supporting others? This is likely to fluctuate depending on your own workload and the nature of the work you are doing. If you feel you must never say “no” to a colleague who needs support, you run the risk of getting overwhelmed and burning out. Perhaps you need to give yourself permission to have limits. Aim to be fully aware of the limits of your role, understand your working environment and the limits of your personal capacity at any given time so you can know what to say “no” to.  

Practice setting boundaries and asserting needs. You can start with situations and people that feel easier to deal with to build confidence. Whenever you feel uncomfortable there may be a boundary issue present so pay attention to your feelings. If you ever need time to think before deciding if you can help, let the other person know you will get back to them when you have looked at your workload. If you need more support, book a therapy session if that's something your company offers as a benefit.

I hope this helps.

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Watch a recording of our mental health webinar on 'How to set, respect & stick to boundaries'

This on-demand webinar looks at different types of boundaries, why we fail to set good boundaries, and how to set better boundaries at work