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From Accommodation to Boundaries: An Ombuds Journey

I want to tell you a story of something that felt so uncomfortable for me when I started my first ombuds job (and is still uncomfortable sometimes!)

Early in my career, I spoke to people all over the world on a variety of issues from a myriad of constituents: employees, volunteers, and the general public. Every once in a while, I would hear from someone who was incredibly upset, sometimes rightfully so. Their anger would be directed at me. Yelling. Name calling. Insulting. Degrading. You name it, I heard it. And when I was new to the role, I tried my best to help the caller no matter what. Because that is what ombuds do. We help.

Ombuds work appeals to the part in all of us that wants to help others, to serve others. It can feel and sometimes be an altruistic role. Ombuds consider first the needs and goals of those who sit across from us (physically or virtually). This led me to sometimes put myself second in order to take the seat that doesn’t take sides. 

But over time, it was getting more and more difficult for me to continue to be berated and verbally beat up. I remember clearly Nicholas Diehl, my coworker at the time, coaching me, telling me that just because it is my job to help, doesn’t mean it is OK for me to be treated that way. It was hard for me to hear for a couple of reasons. 

  • It went against my initial “pure” perspective of who I should be as an ombuds. 
  • I was scared of what would happen if I set boundaries. My go-to conflict style used to be accommodation. I was uncomfortable naming how someone was impacting me directly.

But even with my reservations and fears, it was getting to be too much. So a new skill was born out of necessity. It was time for me to take the skills I taught others on to set boundaries and use them for myself. And boy, am I glad I did. No matter where I work, visitors can be rude, inappropriate, and abusive at times. Knowing how to set boundaries in a way that is both respectful and does not escalate the situation further has been incredibly useful for me. 

Getting comfortable with this took some trial and error. Sometimes I tried it and it worked well. Sometimes I tried it and the person on the other end of the phone got so mad, they took a complaint about me all the way to the CEO. No matter how it turned out, I learned a lot about what was going to work for me and what wasn’t. All skills take time to hone, to shape. And no skill works the same way all the time for all people. 

*Note.* I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that our identities (real and perceived) play a role in how what we say and do is received by others. This was part of what I was learning through trial and error; what was effective for me, specifically.

There are two main take-aways I want to leave you with: 

  • It is OK, and even necessary to set boundaries when someone is treating you inappropriately - ombuds or not. 
  • Practicing boundary setting, like practicing all skills, takes time and space to see what works for you in different settings with different people.

Please - share some examples of when you have had to set boundaries. What did you say/do? How did it go?