To be effective, limits must do three things: define your expectations, clarify your definition of acceptable behavior, and explain the consequences of ignoring your limits. Without consequences, people never learn limits. Without limits, people never become mature and self-sufficient adults.
Here’s a technique for setting limits called Three Strikes, You’re Out.
The first time someone crosses your boundary, simply tell that person what your boundary is and ask them not to cross it again. Never assume that people know your boundaries unless you’ve taken the time to point them out.
The second time they cross your boundary, simply remind them of your request and tell them the consequences of crossing your boundary one more time. Make sure this is a consequence you are ready to carry out. Telling people you’re leaving them for the sixteenth time will only make people laugh.
The third time they cross your boundary, you move on with your consequences.
Three hits go like this:
Someone takes you.
You say, “Please don’t get on me.”
They wear you down again.
You say, “Please don’t get on me, or I’ll leave.”
They wear you out for the third time.
You say goodbye.”
Three strikes, they’re out. You leave and don’t come back until they’ve made amends. If they don’t like your rules, then they don’t have to play with you.
Now, be careful with your limits. You should never set a boundary for another person that you don’t actually maintain for yourself, or else they will consider your boundary a joke. In other words, don’t yell, “stop yelling” at your yelling kids, and expect them to take you seriously. More importantly, you must never allow your consequences to become empty threats.
What is an empty threat? Well, do you remember the last time a child started screaming in the middle of a store, and even though the parents kept threatening to take the child outside, they never actually did?
You were probably less upset with the child than with the parents because the parents were creating threats, not consequences.
A threat is when you tell someone you are going to do something and then you don’t follow through. Every time he threatens but doesn’t follow through, he’s basically saying, “Don’t believe me when I tell you something.” People stop listening when they don’t believe you; so never threaten a consequence you don’t intend to carry out, or your words will be treated as jokes rather than limits.
By the way, consequences can also be rewards. You ask someone to do something and then explain the consequences of doing it. After they do, they reap the reward. Some people call that bribery. I call it teaching people the value of free trade and trade. What did you think a paycheck was anyway? A bribe or the reward you get for working all week?
Once you learn to set clear and consistent boundaries for yourself and others, you’ll be rewarded with healthy relationships.