There’s a sweet and simple time in baby and toddler development when redirection is just about a foolproof discipline strategy. Baby is teething on your cell phone as it starts ringing and you need to answer it. You grab it from his hand, scan the floor for a bright and shiny almost anything, hand it to him with a smile, and you’ve got a deal. The cell phone is forgotten and life goes on. A few times practicing this and the exchange of goods is barely visible. You’re a stealth and efficient redirector. But a bit later, baby gets some emotional legs underneath him and the protest get loud and obnoxious. Now, he feels the loss and holds it against you. He screams and cries and throws himself to the floor. That behavior lasts for, well–let’s just face it–it lasts forever.
Look around and you can see angry tantrums everywhere. Your dog is howling at the back door, your teenager is pissed about the household curfew, the millennial project manager reporting to you thinks it is so unfair that she isn’t included in all of your decisions, a senior leader in your organization is silent at meetings now because you gave him feedback about his communication style. You have boundaries. You say no. And people don’t like it!
Life is full of NO. Sometimes I think my family job title is: Beth Killough, Vice-President of NO. But I’ve been exploring the world of boundaries lately and have been thinking our approach is commonly too rigid and rooted in emotional reactivity. It seems we have forgotten our relational responsibility to put more care into our boundaries, how we deliver them, and how to offer others a better deal or different options. I say NO to that but YES to this. Sure, there are exceptions. You see your kid starting to run into oncoming traffic or your physician colleague stands at the operating table about to amputate the wrong limb. You’d better use a brick-wall boundary.
But more often than not, when we communicate a boundary, we have so much anxiety about the relationship fall-out and emotional reactions of others that we are unable to use creativity and redirection. We employ those hard and fast boundaries in situations that actually ask for coaching, discussion, and understanding. At times, when we could be building relationship and developing trust, we try to control and manage.
The recent rain storms in California taught me a great lesson in redirection and how to “work with what is.” We had been parched in a drought for a few years only to welcome one of the wettest winters in twenty years. When weather comes and rain falls, the water has to go somewhere. It comes down from the mountains, hills, down the rivers, creeks, and roads. It looks for a way and it pushes through whatever bridge, fence, tree, or building is in its path.
We watched a pretty substantial culvert get washed out on our ranch with an incredible force of rushing water. Once the water started really flowing, we could see the places where we needed to redirect. We needed to give it a path forward. Trying to block or stop the water would have been laughable. It’s important to draw the parallel to our human behavior here. Human energy and desire isn’t much different than the powerful momentum of moving water and gravity. It needs somewhere to go–an invitation.
Instead of giving it a dam or a rigid boundary to stop it, we gave it a new direction, one that worked better for us. Flowing into the horse barn was terribly messy and destructive. So we dug a trench and gave offered a better path. Then we added drain rock to create easier movement. This allowed it to flow without obstruction. It could still do its thing but in a way that didn’t hurt us. We said NO to the way it was going but we said YES to a new way for it go. Funny thing, the water didn’t push back. It didn’t rebel or pout. The human ego isn’t always as amenable as elements in the natural world!
Looking for solutions and expressing creative boundaries allows us to shape our lives and to work with life on life’s terms. We don’t have to fight and resist and get stuck. Just to be clear, the peaceful acceptance you read here didn’t come first. The flooding happened and I pretty much lost my marbles. Standing dumbfounded in knee-deep mud and water, I shook my fist at the rain clouds approaching. It was just part of the process. It’s okay to have our own emotions about circumstances that make our lives difficult! A boundary was needed, no doubt. But a creative and limber mindset was the only way to find the solution.
Our personal leadership, in water management, parenting, or team dynamics, depends on finding our own centered thinking so we can use discretion and look for our choices. We almost always have choices! And we need to remember to offer a conversation of choices to others too. When people feel freedom and empowerment in relationship with us, they want to be connected. Leadership that allows for this natural flow is dynamic and attractive. The next time you need to say NO, consider all of the other things you can offer as alternative invitations. You might just find that a boundary isn’t destructive at all but is instead the very thing that allows relationships to move and grow.
Beth Killough is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Susan McCusker, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reconnect with the natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.