Clear, Calm, and Firm Boundary Setting

It is often hard conceptualize how one would directly set boundaries. We hear about it all the time but how do you actually do it in a  situation when things are really feeling uncomfortable? Recently there was an interaction which provided a perfect template for how to set boundaries in a difficult setting. I wanted to share it as an example of how one can be clear, calm, and firm when a conversation occurs that you might find challenging.

A woman had bought a cell phone plan and was expected to bring her old phone in for a new one.  She apparently had gone back home to get it and her husband had changed his mind and refused to give her the phone to exchange. The woman came back and told the manager the situation and asked for her money back.  Without going into all of the finer details of the situation, essentially the manager explained that he could not give her a full refund. Pieces of the payment had already been processed and had nothing to do with their company but were fees and such by state and national regulation, hence no refund possible.

The woman was furious. She began to raise her voice and asked to speak to someone else. The manager explained that he was the person in charge and that he understood her frustration but that without the phone to exchange there was nothing further he could do. The woman shouted numerous profanities at this point.  She then demanded to speak to the owner. The manager again calmly explained that she had paid for the service and owned the service right now, but it was her choice to not use it because she had not exchanged the phone and/or was not willing to buy a different phone. The customer felt she should get her money back even though she had signed a contract stating all of these small details.  The manager was doing his job and the woman was understandably upset by the technicality of the situation. However, as her behavior began to escalate with her words and actions is when the hard part of this interaction started. The woman became livid and started slamming products against the counter. This went on for a few minutes.

Most of us would feel nervous and uncomfortable at this point, if not sooner. However, the manager stayed calm while he clearly and firmly stated what he needed from the customer.

Manager: Ma’am I’m going to have to ask you to please lower your voice, not use profanity, and speak with me calmly.  This is a place of business and I can not help you unless we work together.

The woman continued to use profanity and increased her demands.

Manager: Ma’am, I understand that you are upset and I would like to help you. However, I have to let you know that if you continue this way, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.  If you refuse to leave the store, I’m going to call the authorities.  Please understand, this is not what I want to do however I will if you feel you can not remain civil.

After another full minute of ranting at the store manager, she picked up her things and left.

The manager sighed with relief. He was obviously shaken by the situation but had remained calm and direct during the whole interaction.

I think it is pretty clear that none of us want to have to go through this level of confrontation. In fact, it is this kind of event that typically frightens most of us into not wanting to speak up or set boundaries in the first place. We are afraid of being verbally or physically attacked.  And yet, this manager was able to be professional, straightforward, and expect courtesy.  He was not mean, belittling, harsh, or cruel.  He tried numerous times to engage the customer and when that did not work he stated his expectations for how to be treated and the consequences if his expectations were not met.

It all sounds so simple right? Well, it is in many ways. Part of the challenge for many is the follow through.  It requires the person setting the boundaries to take action if the line is crossed. This is why it is so crucial that when you are setting boundaries for yourself that you feel secure in knowing that you really will follow through. We all know when someone is faking or not, if the manager was not going to follow through than most likely the customer would have continued.  There was a sense from those around that the manager would take action and was prepared to do so right away.  It was also clear that the manager did not want the situation to continue in this fashion and was genuinely interested in helping the woman. However, he was going to be treated with respect and treat the customer with respect as well.  So there were numerous factors about how this event played out.

In setting boundaries it is important to remember to be clear about your expectations, calm in your explanation, and firm in your ability to follow through with the consequences.  Let’s all give a round of applause for “Mr. Manager” who is teaching us all how to respond in a healthy way to stressful situations!


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