by Julie Wolk
It’s time to talk about boundaries, people!
This is a subject often broached in personal development – holding boundaries is considered essential for maintaining emotional health (for example, you may choose not to spend time with a particular friend who drains your energy).
But boundaries are rarely discussed in a business context.
And yet, boundaries in business are crucial if you want to run a business with integrity — and actually enjoy doing it.
I see my clients face SO MANY challenges in their businesses that are directly related to boundaries that are too loose or even nonexistent.
So let’s dive in. First, I’m going to tell you the two main reasons your business needs boundaries . . . and the one secret to creating them.
In the second half of the post, we’ll walk through the four most common ways boundaries are crossed in your business (and how to avoid this).
Your business needs boundaries for two main reasons:
1) So that your business has integrity
The bank makes the river a river. Without it, we have . . . a puddle. Or maybe a delta or something (which is lovely in its own right, but not a river).
Without structure — a boundary to contain it — things get kinda messy. Erosion happens, contaminants find their way in, and the flow can get off course and unpredictable.
With strong banks, the power of the river is channeled successfully. The banks hold the river so that the water can flow, twisting and turning, rushing and trickling out to the sea.
Similarly, your business needs structure, and specifically boundaries, to not only contain it, but to DEFINE it. What is your business and what is it not? How does it operate and how does it not?
The boundaries define the business.
This definition gives your business integrity. What do I mean by integrity? It gives your business strength and reliability.
Something that your clients and potential clients can know and count on. Something that YOU can know and count on, too.
(This feels really good when you nail it, by the way).
Now of course (and we’ll get into this in a moment), your banks can be too high . . . ever seen a levee break?
2) So that YOU don’t burn out
Some people think that poison oak is just there to make you extremely itchy. It’s not. My herbalist friends have taught me to respect poison oak and call it, “Guardian Oak,” and there’s a good reason for this.
Guardian Oak grows at the edges of disturbed areas. Basically, humans come in and clear an area to build a house, and we disturb an intact forest in the process. And what sprouts up at those edges where it’s been disturbed? You guessed it — that’s Guardian Oak’s favourite hangout (which is why you often see it at the edge of a hiking trail).
But here’s the interesting part – I’m told the oak grows there to create a boundary between the disturbers (the humans in this case) and what’s left of the healthy, intact forest.
It’s saying, “Please do not pass, I am the guardian of this forest, and my job is to keep it healthy.”
If you go messing around in the oak, you are most likely going to get a nasty rash, and there’s a decent chance it’ll stop you from trying to disturb the area more, no?!
Ok, that was a long-winded way of saying that sometimes you need to create a boundary around yourself to keep the forest of your life intact.
You need to protect yourself, your health, your well-being . . . from the disturbances (aka, humans who want things from you!) so you don’t get burned out.
So how do you create good boundaries?
Before we dive into the four main ways our boundaries are crossed in our businesses, I want to tell you the secret to creating proper boundaries.
Boundaries must be flexible.
Like a tree swaying in the wind, a boundary is strong and rooted firmly in the earth, but not so rigid that it breaks during an average rainstorm.
It has to have give.
I always tell my clients: Make your boundary. You can always make an exception.
People have this idea that if you make a rule, you must rigidly keep it. But if you did that, you would not have the opportunity to try new things, take advantage of new opportunities, and learn stuff you might not have otherwise learned.
Of course if you always cross your boundary, then we’re back to the whole bank-less river thing (not a river, remember?).
It’s a balance.
So how do you decide when to be flexible, when to bend a boundary? Each situation is different. You need to go inside and ask yourself if it feels right to you to bend your boundary in this particular case.
Sometimes it will be a resounding yes! I am THRILLED to offer my work to this person at a discount because she’s amazing and she needs this work and it feels in service and I need the practice anyways.
And sometimes, you will get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that will say, Do not even think about lowering your rate to work with this person, they’re just going to keep asking for more, and frankly it already feels shitty.
Please listen to this voice. And then make a case-by-case decision.
The 4 Boundaries Most Often Crossed in Your Biz
I have noticed that many of the challenges people face in running a business are actually simply a problem of boundaries.
I’m going to walk you through the four main places where I see boundaries crossed in business all. the. time.
If you can get a handle on creating boundaries in these four areas, you will be well on your way.
I’ll tell you about these four challenges in order of how a client approaches and enters into your business:
Your Niche is Weak or Nonexistent
And for them to know what you do and for whom you do it (otherwise known as your niche), YOU need to know this information.
It is in this way that your niche is the very first boundary of your business.
Because inherently embedded in the niche is what I call – the non-niche. Ok fine, I just made that up.
But seriously, what you DON’T do is as (or more) important as what you DO do. Who you DON’T work with is just as (or more) important as who you DO work with.
When someone comes to you who does not fit your niche, your niche acts as a filter or boundary, making it way easier for you to say, no, I’m not the right person for you, but might I recommend my colleague so-and-so?
Now some aspects of your niche will be more obvious than others. For example, I work with people who sell services, not physical products. I don’t know the first thing about selling products. I wouldn’t even get on the phone with someone selling any kind of physical product because it would be a waste of both of our time.
But I’ve also found that I like working with people who are action-takers, yet that one is a little harder to know without a conversation. So in my consultation calls, I need to ask questions that help me understand whether or not this person is an action-taker so I can decide whether we’re a good fit or not.
Does this person fit within the boundary of my niche?
Because if they’re not, and I work with them, what happens?
Well to be honest, it feels like crap. And it’s draining. And you are not a happy person after a day with the wrong clients on the wrong projects.
Oh, and to boot, you don’t do your best work with these folks because you’re trudging through it, and they can totally feel it, and then they don’t refer other people to you (or maybe even say negative things), and so it’s actually bad for your business too!
So what am I saying here? First, you gotta know (or learn over time, really, because it’s an iterative, evolutionary process) specifically who you are meant to work with and what you’re uniquely effective at and passionate about doing, and be able to say NO to people and projects that are not well-suited to you. Draw a boundary and enforce it (and make occasional exceptions, see first part of this blog post).
You will be much happier and more successful in your business if you only take on people and projects who are well-suited to you.
And not to mention, you can’t be all things to all people. That’s a sure-fire recipe for burnout.
You Don’t Confidently Ask for and Expect Your Fee
Ok, so they’re a great fit and have decided to work with you. Yay! The next step is their payment. This is the second place on the journey where so many entrepreneurs get wiggly — they end up charging less than their services are worth.
This leads to bitterness in the short run, and burnout in the long run, because if you keep doing things for cheap, you’ll always be hustling for more clients and there will never be enough hours in the day. Can you say exhausting?
So what to do? Set a fee that feels right to you and be clear about it. And expect that if you feel good about your fee, then the right clients will pay it.
I use a combination of three things to decide on my fee:
- What I actually need to earn overall in my business
- Where I want to place myself on the range of similar services offered in the marketplace
- My intuition (literally, a gut check on the number – what feels right?)
Then, I think – in advance – about any exceptions I may want to make to that fee. Is there a type of client who I want offer a discount or scholarship to? Do I want to have a certain amount of pro bono clients or sessions per year? Do I want to charge less initially because I’m experimenting with a new program (beta testing)?
And then, after I get as clear as possible, I choose my number and I simply tell people what it costs (pro tip, you have to be able to say your fee out loud without puking or it’s not the right fee). Or even better, I put that fee right on my website so they know even before they talk to me.
Again, it’s OK to make exceptions occasionally, just don’t make it the rule.
You See Clients Willy-Nilly Instead of Having a Schedule
Payment’s in. Woo hoo! Now it’s time to book those sessions. Seems simple, right?
Well not if you don’t have boundaries on your schedule.
Have you ever scheduled someone to make it super convenient for them, only to realize that it’s incredibly inconvenient for you? Yeah, we’ve all been guilty of it. It’s easy to want to accommodate, but again, the more you do evening sessions that cut into family time, or morning sessions before you’ve had your coffee and a shower, or work right through lunch, the more frustrated you’re going to be, and the more likely you’ll hit burnout in the long run.
If you don’t currently have specific days and hours that you see clients, I want you to create them right now.
I know it’s not always as easy to do as it sounds. Many people fear clients won’t work with them if they aren’t super accommodating. I can say from experience though, it is rare that people who really want to work with you will not find a way to see you during your hours. People respect professionals with time boundaries and find a way to fit it in.
Now, again, there’s always an exception here and there. For example, I have a client in Europe who I see a little earlier than I normally would see other clients, but I love her and I want to do it. See, that’s ok too!
But here’s my most important scheduling tip: Before you create your business hours, put everything else on your calendar that’s important to you. Vacations, days off, working out, family time, meditation time, yoga class, dinner out, whatever it is, put it on your calendar FIRST, and then create your business hours around your life. You will be happier for it.
You Over-give Physically and Energetically
Now it’s time to actually work with your new client. And here, the final boundary issue rears its ugly head.
This one is soooo tricky because it’s sometimes really hard to see where our energy is leaking. I’ll give you one example of this that I see over and over again, but I bet you can think of others, too.
I see clients feel like they “should” give their clients more and more of their time and expertise, even if it goes beyond what their clients have paid them or what’s been promised to them. Or, maybe it IS what’s been promised, and the problem is that your offer includes an overabundance of support, and it’s just too much for you to manage for multiple people.
This behaviour often comes from a place of scarcity. You fear not having enough clients, or a client not sticking around for a long time, and you keep giving, giving, giving. The more you provide, the better, right? Maybe, maybe not.
Your client may be very satisfied, but you? You’re exhausted and feel like you can never catch up. And, sometimes even your clients can get overwhelmed when you offer them too much support or too many things to do/read/consume.
This boundary is closely related to the fee boundary and needs to be considered with it.
What is actually the right and fair amount of service to give your client for the money they have paid? Of course, I can’t answer this question for your business in this post, but it’s something to deeply consider as you design your programs, especially if you find yourself scrambling to answer client emails the second they roll in, or if you give away way too much valuable one-on-one time for not enough money.
Like I said, it’s the most complicated one because it’s fuzzy and hard to see, but if you ever feel like you’re working really hard to hang on to your clients, and feel like if you don’t give more, your clients won’t be satisfied/think you’re good enough/hire you again, you might have problems with your energetic boundary. In other words, you might be an over-giver.
People who provide a service that helps people often get caught in this trap, because, well, we really want to help!
But we all know the rule about the oxygen mask on the airplane by now, right!?
And finally, it’s messy at the edge.
You may be familiar with the concept of transition or edge zones in ecology. If not, it’s the place or boundary where two ecosystems meet. It’s inherently more complex. Two worlds colliding. Twice the number of plants and animals all trying to figure it out together.
When we approach making and holding boundaries, it can get messy. It’s not always easy to tell someone No . . . We find ourselves in rich emotional territory (Is it ok for me to feel this way? Should I just do what he’s asking?) and things can feel complicated.
It’s because you’re in a transition zone.
But when the boundary eventually becomes clear and you can hold it with ease (and we all know it can take a few tries!), it’s easy to see what belongs on this side of the fence and what does not.
And you’ll be shocked you ever let yourself book a client during your yoga class.
And more importantly, your business will feel strong and clear and full of integrity. And people will notice that. And you will feel strong and clear and healthy and filled up enough that you actually enjoy running your business.
Which means you will actually have the ability to serve MORE and BETTER.
And that’s what we’re going for.
Boundaries are a hot topic at the January Replenish Winter Reflection & Strategy Retreat for Women Entrepreneurs. If you’re interested in creating powerful boundaries for a successful and fulfilling 2019, I hope you’ll join us!
Julie Wolk helps coaches, consultants, and healers grow rooted, blossoming, burnout-free businesses by modelling them after the way nature works. She’s a firm believer that if we step off the hamster wheel, and tune into nature’s rhythms, we can grow more sustainable lives, businesses and even—gasp!—a better world. A lifelong nature freak, she has over 15 years of experience turning vision into reality, and would love to help you create a simpler, more enjoyable, nature-led life and business. You can find her at www.juliewolkcoaching.com.