Three essential skills for setting work-life boundaries

Set those boundaries.
Set those boundaries.
Image: Unsplash/Nick van den Berg
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Ample research suggests that giving yourself time to recharge—separate from email, Slack, social media, etc.—improves happiness, health, and productivity. But even if you know that, communicating such boundaries to demanding colleagues and clients can be difficult, especially when their work depends on yours.

Few people struggle with this balancing act more intensely than the FBI’s kidnapping negotiators, whose real-time engagement, responsiveness, and expertise could make or break a life. Organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant talked to one such negotiator on WorkLife, his TED podcast about “how to make work not suck.”

Chris Voss spent 24 years as an FBI hostage negotiator and rose to become the agency’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. For seven years, he managed the negotiation strategy for every American kidnapped overseas. Voss, who now has his own business-negotiation consultancy, Black Swan Group, tells Grant he mastered the art of setting limits with people who make extreme demands by honing three specific skills, applicable to any form of boundary-setting, at the office or anywhere else.

Ask the clarifying question

The first and most essential skill to setting boundaries is asking clarifying questions after you’ve been given an assignment. A good example of a clarifying question, Voss says, is: “How am I supposed to do that?” Only you can’t say it in an accusing way, he notes, “because the unspoken part of that is ‘You, idiot!’”

Said in a genuinely inquiring way, however, “it forces people to stop and look at your situation—and forcing them to stop and think and look is a form of boundary-setting.”

Grant proposed a situation in which your boss asks you to work weekends, or your whole team is totally fine with working nights and imposes the same overload on you. “I can see a starting the response with saying, ‘Well, how am I supposed to do that when I have a family, I have kids, when I have other commitments on nights and weekends, when I actually like to sleep seven or eight hours a night,'” says Grant. “But I can also see people saying, ‘You’re not committed if you’re not willing to burn the midnight oil.’ So what kind of advice would you give for that kind of situation?”

The key, Voss says, is to start with the clarifying question—”How am I supposed to work weekends or nights,” for example—and then listen actively. Regardless of how your boss or colleague responds, just by asking the question first, you’ve met one of your objectives by making the person stop and take a look at your own position. This begins to soften their position, no matter how they respond, says Voss.


Next, restate what you think you heard in order to get the other person to either own or reject their request or behavior. It’s a practice known as labeling.

For example, if your boss implies you should be on call during your week off, and you ask a clarifying question like “Does this mean I should be answering emails while I’m spending time with my family,” and the boss responds affirmatively, you can “label” the request to communicate your discontent. (An example of labeling in this scenario, Voss says, might be something like, “Well, it seems like what I’m doing during the day doesn’t demonstrate my commitment. It seems like you’re more interested in how often I’m here as opposed to what I’m actually producing.“)

Of course, labeling can backfire if you cast too negative a judgment, or say something rude like “You’re being a jerk.” To avoid this, Voss clarifies that effective labels are simple statements like “It seems/sounds/feels/looks like _____.”

“There’s a very small but [important] difference in application between saying ‘It seems like you’re upset about this’ and ’What I’m hearing is you’re upset,’” Voss tells Grant. “When I’m doing it properly, I’m intentionally not using the word ‘I.’ ‘I’ is a self-centering word, and ‘I’ causes you to take a little more responsibility for the label in that moment.”

There’s another advantage to a construction like “What I’m hearing is you’re upset.” As Voss notes, if the person comes back and says you’re wrong, that they’re not upset, you still have room to say something like, “I didn’t say you were, I just said it sounds like you are.”

According to Grant, “one of the differences between expert negotiators and their peers is that experts spend a lot more time labeling other people’s behavior and then testing their understanding.”

Don’t try to get a “yes”

The third, and most counterintuitive, means of setting work-life boundaries concerns the requests that you make of others, such as asking a colleague to cover for you when you’re out of the office. When initiating your request, instead of trying to get a “yes,” Voss advises starting off with a question that elicits a “no.”

This is why switching away from “Do you agree with this” to “Do you disagree” makes all the difference. “Most of your ‘yes’ questions can be flipped just by changing the first part of them to ‘Are you against,’ ‘Is this a bad idea,’ ‘Is this ridiculous,’ or, ’Do you disagree,’” he says.

“This could be worth a try next time you want to ask a colleague to handle your email while you’re on vacation,” says Grant. “Rather than asking, ‘Would you be open to it?’ You can gently ask, ’Are you totally opposed to the idea?’”

Usually, in that situation, it’s far easier for the person to say “no” than “yes.”