Boundaries can prevent burning bridges


We’ve all been told, “never burn your bridges,” but we’ve all had it happen as well….a bad ending that we wish would not have gone down that way. Realistically, not all of them are preventable, as some people are truly impossible, and frankly with them, it is a good idea to burn that bridge.

Absent a lightning strike that wakes them up, they really are bad actors from which you want to protect yourself from engaging again, not leaving an open door. But, those are rare.

Usually, in business, the bad endings could often have been avoided, and even salvaged the relationship or at the very least, not spoiled it for future possibilities. And future opportunities happen often, when that person has changed companies, turned themselves around, or a host of other reasons. So, how to avoid those “bombed bridges” is an important business skill.

There are a few points to keep in mind from the beginning of the relationship all the way to the end. These will give you the best chance for not only good outcomes along the way, but the potential for the best ending as well. They will define, protect and enable good boundaries that minimize your getting damaged, as well as help protect the relationship from damage too.

First, make sure you begin the relationship with a deep focus on making sure the other party feels understood. Notice I did not just say, “Understand the other party well.” I said to go further than that and make sure that not only do you understand them, but that they feel deeply understood.

When a person feels like you understand what they need, what is truly important to them, what it is like for them to do whatever they have to do, it opens them up to greater trust.

We trust people when we feel like they understand us. What this does is it paves the way to resolve conflict much more easily along the way, but if we do end up parting ways, it does not happen in a sea of misunderstanding, but it happens because we both understand what we want and need, and realize it is not happening here for whatever reason.

Second, be clear about what is important to you as well, and make sure that both of you have very clear expectations and know them. Write down an understanding of what each of you wants, and what the other promises to do to make that happen.

From your side, do not go overboard on promises, and be very, very certain that you are not promising something you cannot deliver.

It is much easier to say, “I really understand why that is important to you, so let’s find another way to meet that need, because that way won’t work for me. Let’s explore some other options,” than try to work through the anger and betrayal later when they feel something they were promised did not happen.

Also, remember that this is not one-sided. You want to be clear about what you are expecting from them too, so that when it does not happen, you have understanding and clarity already on your side with which to enter into the conversation….you will be equipped with some non-emotionally charged ground to stand on.

Related to this and very important, is when you agree on the expectations, in the beginning, ask, “So what will be the best way to deal with this if neither of us delivers on one of these? Should we send a reminder? And if then we still are not doing what is expected, what should we do then? Let’s get a plan in case we have any problems along the way so we will know how best to address it then.”

This sets you up with a clear way to face issues along the way.

Next, if something does go awry, enter in with seeking first to understand…. “We had agreed that this or that would happen, and I have not received it yet. What’s happening? Is there anyway that I can help, or anything I am doing to make it difficult? Or, anything that is happening on your side that I need to know or could help with?”

Again, starting with empathy is always more helpful. Then you have a leg to stand on to say, “That’s hard. I understand. I do really need for this to happen, though, so let’s figure out the next steps.”

And….at times, there will still be failure, or non-performance. But if you have done all of the above, and exceeded expectations, to end without burning the bridge is much more possible.

“You know, we had talked about what we needed and what was to be done, and at this point, I need to find a different path as this isn’t working. I wish you the best….maybe some time in the future, we will have another opportunity.” (Or not…..don’t leave the door open if you don’t want to).

This path is simple and it accomplishes a lot: clarity, a way to solve problems, and a way to exit if they do not get solved…with as little damage as possible. That way, you have clear boundaries through understanding, clarity, and real consequences along with treating people as best as is impossible from beginning to end. That keeps the future possible.

Henry Cloud, Ph. D.,  is a leadership and performance consultant, psychologist, and New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, The Power of the Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have on You, from the Boardroom to the Bedroom and Beyond—And What to Do About It, is published by HarperBusiness. Visit