Boundaries vs. Barriers: 3 Ways to Set Limits without Losing Work

Alyssa Gregory
Alyssa Gregory

barbed wireA while ago, I wrote a post about setting boundaries with clients and got some great feedback. But when I thought about the process of setting boundaries a little more, I realized that there can be a very thin line between setting limits in a way that supports your business and one that turns people off.

While it’s absolutely necessary to set boundaries that define your expectations and limits with your clients, I think it’s just as important to do it in a way that doesn’t put up a wall that will hurt your relationships. So here are a few ways to prevent your boundaries from resulting in lost work.

Be Firm but Not Obstinate

One sure-fire way to create a barrier instead of a boundary is by informing your clients of your policies in a way that can be considered confrontational, standoffish, or otherwise offensive. You have every right to set whatever limits you want in your business, but if you come off like a tyrant – laying down your terms and walking away – you’re not going to make any friends or gain any clients for that matter.

Many times, it’s all about the delivery. If you present your policies in a conversational way and then give the client a chance to ask for clarification, you can make your terms a lot easier to swallow.

Provide Some Background

I’m not a fan of having to justify why I make the decisions that I make in my business, but sometimes it’s necessary to share a little background information to help facilitate the client’s understanding of your situation. It all relates to treating your clients as you would want to be treated.

Let’s say, for example, you don’t work on Wednesdays because you travel to visit your mom and spend the day with her every week. You could just flatly tell the client, “Don’t expect to hear from me on Wednesday, because I’m out of the office and not answering e-mails.” But if you think about it, taking a day off in the middle of the week is not very common, and without making prior arrangements, it can cause some minor disruptions with ongoing projects.

Of course, it’s certainly in your right as someone who is self-employed to work whenever you want to work, but by giving the client a little background information on why you do this, they will be more likely to accept it.

Don’t Make It Personal

A major red flag when you’re setting boundaries is if you find yourself changing them in response to individual client requests. While you may find that your limits evolve over time, the last thing you want is to enter into a power struggle when it comes to setting limits with your clients, trying to get the upper hand instead of being true to what your policies are across the board. This can make for an impossible relationship to maintain.

If you commit to being respectful and fair with all of your clients, not only does it become easier to maintain a set of standard policies, but you can avoid making individual clients feel attacked and mistreated.

It’s really no different from setting limits in other areas of your life. You can modify your approach so you’re not just saying, “no,” but you’re qualifying it a bit to ease the refusal.

How do you set boundaries without turning off your clients? Have your policies evolved over time as your business has matured?

Image credit: John Nyberg