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Setting effective boundaries with men is a common problem for many women. One of the primary problems is dealing with unwanted sexual attention. This attention comes in many different forms from unwanted comments to inappropriate touches to physical violations. These incidents are boundary setting and boundary violation issues.  A look a #MeToo shows how widespread this problem is.

Harvey Weinstein –  Accused of multiple incident of workplace sexual harassment.

Generally, women have been socialized in society to “be nice”. The side effect of this “niceness” is women not standing up for themselves for fear of the consequences of not being nice. Therefore, many women deal with conflicts by engaging in passive and/or indirect speech. Assertiveness seen as “bitchy” and is associated with being angry. Many women are also physically intimidated men, leading them to not want to “make them mad”.  There also exists a considerable percentage of men who are looking to take advantage of women. The result this combination is a long list of victims as exemplified by #MeToo.

A common conflict management strategy is to engage in Under-Communication and Under-Enforcement.  When dealing with unwanted male attention, women tend to use ignoring/passive body language to send a message of “I don’t want to engage in you.”  This method allows them (much of the time) to avoid undesired attention in social situations with generally respectful people. This socialization leads to minimal practice and experience with assertive Communication and Enforcement of their boundaries with disrespectful people.

In terms of Everyday Boundary Setting™, standing up for yourself means engaging effective boundary setting. In order to set boundaries, you must be willing to clearly Communicate and Enforce them. But before you can do so, you need to know what your boundaries are, and to what extent you are willing to insist they be respected (your Boundary Setting Paradigm). You must also recognize that many times women don’t stand up for themselves out of fear of creating a Backlash. They are afraid that their level of Enforcement will be perceived as Over-Enforcement. As a result, they undershoot and are silent or engage in Under-Enforcement. In terms of workplace sexual harassment, the Backlash is any type of negative consequences that arises from Enforcing their personal boundaries with a co-worker, boss, client, or with some other work related person. It is the fear of these negative consequences that drives the silence of the majority of women.

The most important element of boundary setting is Respect. Without the existence of Respect, boundary setting is ultimately doomed to fail. But the key element is Enforcement. For personal boundary violations, the driver of the Enforcement is the victim. Serial harassers and predators weaponize their victims’ fear of negative consequences (the Backlash) to force their compliance and stop their engagement of Enforcement. The resulting lack of Enforcement or Under-Enforcement encourages the harasser to continue his violations (creates Contempt). In simple terms, he (or she) does it because he can get away with it. Therefore, in order for boundary setting to be work, you must be willing to engage in an effective level of Enforcement.

In the workplace, the direct or implicit threat used by the Harasser is to the Target of Harassment’s career or source of income rather than a physical threat of harm.  The Target is forced to chose between enduring the harassment or engaging in Enforcement which may (or my not) result in negative consequences. The willingness to use Enforcement to set personal boundaries requires predetermining the potential cost of engaging in Enforcement versus the cost of not engaging in Enforcement. The reason for the predetermination is that making this type of decision at the moment of harassment is difficult. In other words, it is more effective if decide upon your willingness to Enforce your boundaries well in advance of any violation.

Your decision is really a Communication to yourself about the importance of Enforcing your boundaries. The positive side effect of this self-Communication is that many times your demeanor now reflects (Communicates) your willingness to Enforce your boundaries. It is your willingness and ability to Enforce your boundaries that creates a deterrent against present and future violations. The Progressive Fence is a tool for demonstrating your willingness and ability.

When it comes to workplace violations, the weapon used is the fear of negative consequences. But this fear can be welded by the Target of Harassment as well. In the same manner that the Harasser wants to instill fear in you, you can instill that same fear back into him. Sexual harassment depends upon the Target’s unwillingness to Enforce her (or his) boundaries. Punishable incidents of sexual harassment depend upon the Target’s willingness to Enforce her boundaries. If a Harasser has assessed that you are unwilling to Enforce, your use of the Progressive Fence shows him that he is mistaken. It shows that he is the one (not you) who needs to be concerned about the negative consequences of his actions.

The Progressive Fence is expressed by the use of the Visual Fence (body language), the Verbal Fence (assertive phrases), and the Physical Fence (physical actions).  The Progressive Fence both Communicates your boundaries and also your willingness to Enforce those boundaries.

In the this video scene from Mad Men, Peggy uses the elements of the Progressive Fence. Her body language (Visual Fence) is strong and conveys the serious of her message. Her words are clear and direct (Verbal Fence). Her physical actions (Physical Fence) are her movements throughout the office as she engages in Enforcement. In this case, she creates Respect by removing the source of Disrespect.

The Progressive Fence™ is a tool of Everyday Boundary Setting™. Learn more by enrolling in the full course.

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