How to Set Boundaries and Communicate More Effectively, from Former Google On-Site Therapist Katherine Schafler

If you’ve ever talked to a mental wellness expert on how to improve your well-being, the word “boundaries” has probably come up. Boundaries with work, with family, with friends, the list goes on. WeWork Labs spoke with former Google on-site therapist Katherine Schafler on how to set boundaries, how they actually make you more productive, and how to improve your communication skills.

WeWork Labs: Everyone wants to know how to be more productive. Do you have any tips for that?

KS: It’s interesting that you ask that just as we’ve spoken about self-care, because study after study, and my own observations in my practice and in my life, demonstrate that the people who are the most productive are also the people who take the time to take care of themselves.

We tend to think of productive people as the people who are always able to say yes, and that’s actually not the case. Highly productive people actually say “no” so much more often so that they can focus on doing the things they say yes to with premium energy. The kind of energy that sustains them through the entire endeavor, not just the exciting beginning. People who take excellent care of themselves, or even pretty good care of themselves, are able to start tasks, bring them to completion, and focus on the next task at hand. If we contrast that with people who don’t take great care of themselves, they may be able to start a task, but they lose steam within the process and can’t finish it. Or they may finish it, but then they just go off the grid for a significant amount of time while they restore and try to do damage control on all the pieces of their life that unraveled a little bit they were so singularly focused without a streamline rhythm of self-care to sustain them along the way.

So, all that said, the first tip on being able to do more is being able to do less. Reflect on when a lot spills over into too much with whatever you’re committed to— family obligations, work tasks, the emotional labor your providing to the people in your life who aren’t necessarily appreciating or accepting it. Whatever comes up as a consistent source of stress, that’s a good signal that you need to create and enforce tighter boundaries.

WeWork Labs: What do you mean by boundaries? What do they have to do with productivity?

KS: Boundaries are the ways in which you protect your time, energy, health, and emotional safety. As an adult, protecting your well-being isn’t just a nice thing to do for yourself, it’s actually part of your job.

A good place to start with thinking about how to tighten up your boundaries around a consistent source of stress is to fill in this blank: “It’s not okay for people to _______.” That might include answers like, ‘Come over to my house unannounced’ or ‘go through my personal belongings.’ Just like self-care, boundaries look different for everyone.

So we’ve got your standards down; now it’s time to give yourself permission to enforce those boundaries, so you might say something like, “To protect my time and energy, it’s OK for me to _____.” Like telling someone who shows up at my house that it’s not a good time, to piggyback off that last example.

You might be wondering if we’re steering off course a little bit here, and I really want to reiterate that being productive isn’t about figuring out how to do more, it’s about figuring out how to do less. We all have competing demands in life and we all have people or schools or organizations who have grown accustomed to us saying yes to whatever they might need. This isn’t a problem with schools or organizations or people in our lives—they’re not mind readers, it’s not their job to manage our personal boundaries and self-care. But if you really want to show up for your company or your family or your community, if you really want to be able to offer a wholehearted yes, you have to start saying no. Or, “I’m going to need help with this,” or “I can do this if X thing comes off my plate.”

WeWork Labs: Could you give some other examples of how to communicate in a way that helps us be more productive while also helping us take care of ourselves?    

KS: Sure, but before we even get to that, let’s talk about the different ways we communicate. There are four basic ways we all communicate with each other, and over 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. There’s verbal, non-verbal or body language, listening, and modeling.

I think a big reason people say yes when they mean no is really simple: They want to be nice. They want to be liked. They want others to know they care.

It’s a great intention, but it backfires, and here’s why. Because when you’re regularly agreeing to do something that you have some kind of issue with, or you hear something in a meeting that you think could be done in a better way but you don’t want to offend anyone by saying that, every time you agree to do it anyway you’re probably building resentment and you’re definitely not giving the project your all. Resentments add up, and quickly add to burnout, so we see all this stuff is really interconnected, by the way.

But here’s the thing: You can’t over-polite each other. That’s what I call it when someone just wants to say something and prefaces it or flat our buries it under all this polite, very nice fluff. For example, and this is just one person’s opinion by the way so I recognize that a lot of people might like this, but I find that sandwiching a critique inside of two compliments is a transparent, mildly patronizing and often hugely time-wasting way to communicate. I love the mantra: “I respect you enough to be honest with you, and I trust you enough to handle it.” That doesn’t mean you have to actually say that to anyone, but we’re not talking about kids here. We’re all adults, lets respect each other enough to be direct, and trust that if the person on the receiving end of our constructive feedback finds it offensive or otherwise unhelpful, they will address that appropriately. So yea, try not to over-polite each other.

If you have some kind of dissenting opinion, you can practice these scripts so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you want to bring something up that no one else seems to be raising, which I get isn’t always easy:

—”I’d like to add an opinion/suggestion/perspective here…” Keep it simple and direct. Instead of talking about what you don’t like, focus on what you’d like to see included or the ways in which a change could occur.

—If you find that it takes you a second to process everything, and then you leave the meeting when the new idea comes that you think is better, that’s fine, too. You can always communicate the same message over email. “I’d like to add a perspective/opinion/thought to the conversation we had at this morning’s meeting…”

Be prepared for people to get on board with your idea, and also be prepared for people to not get on board. When working with a team, no one person is getting their way all the time, so try not to take it personally.

WeWork Labs: Are there any other tips on how to communicate effectively and efficiently?

KS: I really like the mantra: Listen to understand, not to respond. Listening is one of those really simple things that we tend to overcomplicate. Sometimes communication isn’t about talking— it’s about not talking. It’s about listening.

I’d also encourage you to use scripts to manage expectations with others. Let’s take two common examples: feeling like you’re being given too much, and feeling like you’re not being challenged or utilized enough.

For situations in which you feel like you’re receiving an overwhelming amount of work, don’t assume the person giving you directives is automatically aware of everything on your plate. Help that person understand the entire landscape by giving them context of your workload. For example, “I don’t anticipate this being deliverable until I complete X other assignment, which will be approximately X amount of time.”

For situations in which you feel like you’re not being challenged, again, don’t assume the person giving you directives is aware that you’re interested in broadening your repertoire of skills. You can make that clear by simply stating, “I’m ready for more responsibility and I’d really like to help the team by ___.” And really get proactive about coming up with two or three concrete ways for you to jump in.

WeWork Labs: Great, anything else you’d like to leave us with?

KS: If you continue to encounter difficulties with burnout, productivity, self-care, managing expectations, not feeling comfortable asserting your opinions or ideas, or anything else that’s disrupting your wellness, it’s important to continue exploring why that’s happening. Just because you implement a solution doesn’t mean the problem is going to get solved—it just means you’re getting proactive about finding which solution is going to fit. So, this is me managing expectations here, these shifts are often more of a process than an event; they didn’t show up overnight and they won’t change overnight. That’s okay. Continue engaging in potential solutions and give yourself a long runway to figure it out. Even when solutions fail, that’s good information for you to have. You’re now more informed for deciding what the next attempt at solution will be. I’m a big believer in the idea that there are always multiple solutions.

Learn more about how to stay mentally and physically well as an entrepreneur.

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