Renegotiating When Circumstances Shift

I recently got together with some friends for the first time since March. This event was a big deal for the whole group. To ensure everyone would feel comfortable, we agreed to get Covid tests and self-quarantine in the week leading up to our get-together. And yet, I still felt very wobbly about the whole experience.

In her recent comic in The Lily, author and illustrator Ali Solomon beautifully illustrates this feeling. “After months of isolation,” she writes, “I wanted to reclaim a sense of normalcy. But…my gauge of what is ‘safe’ can no longer be trusted.”

The comic depicts her experience at a birthday party she was assured would follow social distancing guidelines. When it starts to rain, and the outdoor party moves inside, people take off their masks, sit too close to one another, and even share drinks. Solomon is uncomfortable with what’s going on, and yet, she decides to stay.

The Slippery Slope of Shifting Circumstances

Whether at a birthday party or a weekly team meeting, you’ve likely experienced something similar. You agree to a specific set of expectations and then suddenly find yourself in a situation that takes you way outside your comfort zone.

Physical symptoms are generally the first sign that you’ve stumbled into a situation that tests your boundaries. Your palms sweat, your heart pounds, and you have no idea what to do next.

Of course, the best way to resolve your discomfort would be to pause, take a breath, and ask yourself how to renegotiate to make the experience psychologically and physically safe. But that can be incredibly challenging when you’re already in a stress state.

Cue your inner critic, who shows up to remind you that if you take a stand, you’ll be ridiculed and destroy all of your relationships. What a mess! Setting new boundaries at this point can feel nearly impossible. But, I promise, all hope is not lost.

Yes, You Can Renegotiate When Circumstances Change

Whenever I teach The Wisdom of Saying No for corporate groups, I am amazed by how many people think it’s unacceptable to renegotiate. Even if their work scope has changed, the sentiment is always, “I agreed to take on the project, and if I ask for more time or resources, my boss will think I can’t do the job.”

Here’s the truth: your higher-ups want to see that the work gets done, but they’re seldom interested in who does it. Yes, you have specific skills that they value, but above all else, they want you to communicate what you can handle and what you need to do your job well.

In the end, muscling through can leave you over-committed and likely to drop the ball, which does far more damage to your credibility than asking for help.

Getting Clear on What’s Expected

It’s unlikely that you’ll know everything about a project or a commitment in the very early stages. However, there are specific questions you can ask to set yourself and your team up for success and ensure flexibility when the circumstances change.

  • What are the deliverables? Clarify what your team is working towards and create a plan for how you will proceed if the work scope changes. Will deadlines need to shift? How will you reallocate resources?

  • Who is involved? Make a list of key stakeholders at every level. Ensure that your team members know what role they play, who they report to, and who they should go to with questions or concerns.

  • What don’t we know? What details are likely to come into focus over the next few weeks or months? Clarity here can make you more comfortable asking for additional time or resources when things change.

  • How will we know if we’ve succeeded? Know your end goal. Define milestones and measures for success. Remember, if you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s far more likely you’ll get lost along the way.

  • What do I have to give? Honestly assess how much of your time and energy you can offer to this project. Look at everything else on your plate and ask yourself what might need to go so that you can commit fully?

Don’t Be a Hero; Be Honest

It’s so easy to get bound up in the belief that you’re the only one responsible for a project’s success or failure. So many of us walk around with a deeply ingrained “hero complex” and forget that we’re part of a team. So, we take on too much.

We say “yes” without weighing the options, and when we stumble into a situation that isn’t what we bargained for, we assume it’s our job to stay there and suffer.

This assumption isn’t correct, of course. You can always renegotiate.

If setting boundaries and saying “no” with confidence don’t come naturally to you, you are not alone. But they are skills that can be developed with practice. There are lots of ways to approach this. One is the workshop I offer below.

Nicole is a creative leadership coach and speaker who empowers women to transform limiting beliefs and bring their lives and careers to new heights. Her 8-week intensive coaching program “The Wisdom of Saying No” begins in March 2021.

Photo by Ian Kirkland on Unsplash