Announce Your Communication Boundaries

To my blog fans, I apologize for not posting for over a week. I was in Beijing, China and flew back to Manila only last night. I discovered, to my dismay, that I cannot access my WordPress blog and my Facebook page from Beijing.

This is perfect timing to write about communication boundaries.

Every person has his or her own communication boundaries. You can be more aware of your communication boundaries by answering the following question: What topics, manners of talking, or kinds of questions or requests bother, irritate or offend you?

When I was studying for my Master of Science degree at Cornell University, I shared an apartment with an Egyptian friend majoring in theatre. I was uncomfortable every time, during conversations, he would stress a point by talking with his face about six inches from mine. My tendency was to move back. I noted that he behaved in the same manner when talking to fellow Egyptians. His “personal distance” (a technical term in the science of proxemics) is shorter than mine. We eventually both noticed and talked about it. We both saw why I felt discomfort and had to move back, and why he felt I was disinterested in what he was saying by my moving back. We became aware of our hitherto unconscious communication boundaries, and we understood why we both behaved the way we did.

“Green jokes” (or jokes with sexual undertones) can be another example of communication that violates the boundaries of a person. If the person is unaware of her communication boundary, all she will feel is irritation at the person telling the green joke. And the person telling the green joke will continue to do so, if he is so wrapped up in his joke that he does not see her discomfort. Both are unaware of the communication boundary of the hearer, and the irritating or offensive situation can repeat again and again. The solution: be aware of your communication boundary and announce it to others.

We are free to say anything… but only up to the point where we begin to violate the communication boundaries of our hearers. The problem is, people do not announce their communication boundaries, because they are often unaware of their boundaries or they are too timid to announce them. Another problem is that our communication boundaries are often not the result of our conscious choice.

At the organizational level, there are similarly unconscious communication boundaries. An example is what Chris Argyris calls “undiscussables” — topics, manners of talking, or kinds of questions or requests that are not allowed within a particular organization’s culture. Undiscussables vary across organizations and cultural milieus. Some examples of undiscussables are: political criticism against Communist Party officials, public opposition to the CEO, facts (e.g. what went wrong) that embarrass an office mate, etc. These are implicit “don’ts” or what members of an organization implicitly agree not to talk about. According to Argyris, undiscussables can block organizational learning processes.

I believe that a precondition to productive communication in a group is the conscious review, choice and announcement of communication boundaries by each member of the group. Each member decides what kind of communication he or she is unwilling to receive. In a learning organization or a learning team, communication boundaries that are explicitly announced, clarified, acknowledged and respected can better lead to productive communications.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to “Announce Your Communication Boundaries”

  1. marigrace manansala-ramones Says:

    hi sir, i hope my note will be accepted this time. im a former student of asian centre, i was enrolled in one of your classes there, i didn’t finish my MA, remember when you ask ate lita to join us and talked about spiritual matter and so on, chakra and aura, and so on..
    anyways, i like your article, what you wrote is true! keep posting!

  2. apintalisayon Says:

    Hi Marigrace, thank you for your note.
    Did you post a comment before? Please re-post it because I do not remember seeing it.

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