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Coaching for Better Communication, Part 2
Effective Limit Setting

Pat Kufeldt
Burke, Virginia, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 36 No. 4, August-September 2000, pp. 73-74

This is the second of a three part series about coaching for better communication. There are times when a Leader can offer the encouragement of coaching support in addition to information. Part 1, "Coaching for Effective Communication" appeared in the June-July, 2000 issue of LEAVEN and Part 3, " Coaching for More Effective Communication with Your Doctor" appeared in the October-November issue.

There are times when a Leader can offer the encouragement of coaching support as well as information.

Some limits don't require any thought. "You can't bring a wet dog in the house." "The family rule is that everyone sits down to dinner together on Wednesday nights." "I'm not available to help with the paper drive next week." "Children don't play in the road." These limits don't require any thought because the person involved has either formulated an answer long before the occasion arises or doesn't care how the other person responds. When you are caught off guard or are afraid that your limit will cause the other some pain, it becomes more difficult. Effective limit setting is a confrontational skill that requires preparation and practice; that's the bad news. The good news is that practice makes effective limit setting easier. There are four basic steps to setting a limit: Deciding upon your limit, initially stating the limit as clearly as possible, listening to the response, and repeating the limit until it is accepted.

Coaching someone who wants to set a limit might sound like this:

Sara: Did you ever have a problem with your mother-in-law?

Leader: That's an interesting question. Sounds as though you are having difficulty with yours.

Sara: I know she means well, but she is really aggravating right now. Ever since Sammy was born, she has been coming over to the house and cleaning up. She comes over two or three times a week, does the laundry and puts things away. The pampering was wonderful for a while, but I want my house back.

Leader: You're anxious because she seems to you to be intruding on your space.

Sara:. Exactly. I can't find anything and I've begun to feel as though it's more her house than mine.

Leader: Sometimes it is difficult to say no to someone, especially someone you care about.

Sara: That's true and you don't know my mother-in-law. Certainly I've said no any number of times. My mother-in-law, Joanne, didn't get to be a top real estate saleswoman by taking no for an answer. She just says, "Oh, don't be silly. I love doing this for you," and continues on her merry way. I dread this ongoing conflict.

Leader: It sort of sits out there like a black cloud. You can see it coming, but you feel helpless. What you want to do is called limit setting. If you'd like we could rehearse the confrontation. I find that to be very helpful when I'm stuck in situations like this.

Sara: I think that would be very helpful. It would give me a chance to prepare myself. Where do we start?

Leader: The first thing to do is decide exactly what your limit is and how to phrase it so that your mother-in-law has as little negative reaction to it as possible.

Sara: She's just trying to be nice, I think. My father-in-law was a military man and was often overseas or at the other end of the country. Over the years she has told us how challenging it was to take care of five children without his help. I guess this was something she always dreamed of for herself, someone nearby who could look after her.

Leader: So, your limit is?

Sara: I guess the thing that bothers me is that she doesn't consult with me. I never know when she's coming or what she's going to do.

Leader: So your limit is that you want to be consulted about the housework.

Sara: Yes. I want her to call before she comes and I want to have a say in what she does in the house. Does that make sense?

Leader:Yes. That's a well-stated limit. The limit setting process has a pattern that is helpful. First you describe the behavior and its concrete effect on you; second listen for a response and empathize with it; third acknowledge the other person's position and give positive feedback. Then you state your limit, and recycle this process until the other person accepts the limit you have set. Okay, Sara, can you describe the behavior and its concrete effect on you?

Sara: Well, Joanne comes barging into the house at all times of the day and the next thing I know the house is topsy-turvy and I have no idea what's going on.

Leader: I think I've got the picture, Sara, but I'm not sure how helpful it would be to say it like that. Could you say something like, "Joanne, when you come over to the house without calling first and start cleaning without consulting me, as you did yesterday, I feel disconcerted because I have to replan the whole day."

Sara: I guess I could say that. Then what do I say?

Leader: The next step is to listen to her reaction and try to make her understand that you heard what she had to say.

Sara: Okay. Joanne, when you come over to the house without calling first and start cleaning without consulting me, as you did yesterday, I feel disconcerted because I have to replan the whole day.

Leader (as Joanne): Well my goodness. I was just trying to help. I know what it's like to have a new baby and no one to help out.

Sara: Now I've hurt your feelings. I'm sorry. I just can't stand it when people come over and move....

Leader: Whoa! Try repeating her feelings back to her.

Sara: You feel hurt because you've been trying to do a good thing and it seems as though I'm unappreciative.

Leader: Sara that was wonderful! I think you hit the nail on the head! (Joanne) "Yes, exactly. I was hoping that I was being helpful" Now, here's where you acknowledge her position and give her some positive feedback.

Sara: Hmmm. I've noticed how much work you've done around here. You've really lightened the load for me.

Leader: This is a perfect place to state your limit.

Sara: From now on, I'd like you to call before you come over and consult with me before you do anything in the house.

Leader: (Joanne) Well, if that's the way you feel about it, I just won't help out at all!

Sara: Oh no! Now what?

Leader: See if you can reflect her feelings back to her again, say something genuinely positive and then repeat your limit, exactly the way you said it the first time.

Sara: You feel so insulted that you're considering not helping out at all. I want you to know that I've appreciated your lending a hand at such a busy time. From now on, I'd like you to call before you come over and consult with me before you do anything in the house.

Leader: This method is also called the "broken record" and when you repeat the limit over and over again, in the same words, it does sound like a broken record. Dr. Robert Bolton says in his book that it can take as many as eight to ten repetitions before the other person really gets it.

Sara: Eight to ten repetitions? Wow! How important is it that the words stay the same?

Leader: The limit actually gains strength by staying the same. The other person becomes convinced that you must really mean what you are saying. That's another reason why you should think your limit through in advance of any confrontation. Ready to try it or do you need more practice?

Sara: No, I'm psyched. I'm going to go home and do this before I lose my nerve.

Leader: Don't forget to listen to her responses. Your success hinges on it.

Coaching is an important tool for Leaders. Some people need more than information. They need an opportunity to practice new ways of talking to the important people in their lives.

The final article in this series about Leaders coaching others for better communication will appear in the next issue of LEAVEN. The topic will be dialoguing with a doctor.

Setting a Limit

  • Describe the behavior and its concrete effect on you.
  • Listen for a response and empathize with it.
  • Acknowledge the other person's position and give positive feedback.
  • State your limit.
  • Recycle this process until the other accepts it.

What is a "Concrete Effect"?

Those things that unnecessarily:
  • Cost the limit-setter money
  • Harm her possessions
  • Consume her time
  • Cause her extra work
  • Endanger her job
  • Interfere with her effectiveness.

This article is the continuation of a theme on coaching for better communication from the last issue of Leaven. The other articles in this series:

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