But why should we avoid ultimatums? One common argument may be because you may not hear what you want to hear. And that could hurt. Another stronger argument would be because ultimatums are usually used to control others, and the only people we can really control are ourselves. Something about this disrespecting of others’ rights, and trying to control them to be what we want them to be, seems to be inherent in our concept of ultimatums. Essentially “You better _____, or else!” What if that person doesn’t want to _____. By doing this we are overriding their boundaries.
However what I’ve seen in terms of my eventual need to ask “are you in or are you out?” has been very different. It has usually been after a time of people telling me how “in” they are. I mean, SO in. Whether it is clients that are ‘really ready to do some counseling and make some changes’, folks wanting to join our progressive little house church or people wanting to help me with writing and speaking projects, good golly can they talk! I’ve heard so much talking lately. But the problem is after the talking I seem to watch some go and do to the best of their ability (which is quite beautiful to watch as people go after what they want) but sometimes with a select few I watch a battle take place. And what follows is a wishy-washy half in/half out, very stuck kind of person. They say what they really want, but then their actions are incongruent.
For these people I have had to come to the eventual (with prayer and wise counsel) decision to have the tough conversation of boundaries with the ultimate question then being – “Essentially, are you in, or are you out? If you’re out, that’s okay. We truly understand that this might just not be a fit for you right now. But if you want to be in, then we do need you to be in. Because its not good for you OR us, if you are neither. You’ll need to follow through with your commitment of x, y, z or we just cant move forward together. So take some time, really consider it, and then let me know what you decide.” These conversations are tough. Most of us get defensive when someone calls us on this. Then we give excuses. LOTS. But after that kind of dies down, and all of the tragedies are acknowledged and validated (don’t dismiss the realities) the bottom line still stands. “Given this is the current status of your life, still, what do you want? And if this is what you want, then x, y, z (which really aren’t THAT major of a commitment) are required to get it.”
So how did I come to this place of deeper questions and tough conversations around being in or out? Because someone once gave me the gift. My life had filled, and I was trying to do too much, and they could sense my wishy washy-ness about this new commitment. I had great excuses, but essentially the message was “I get it. You’ve got a lot going on, this is costly, but no one is forcing you to do this. It’s YOUR life. The only person that knows what you want is you, so make a decision and stick with it”. (They niced it up more, but you get the gist). What followed was a real freedom once I finally decided and held myself to that.
And what’s followed with the people in my life at work, church and so forth that I’ve had to call on their flakiness after the defensiveness subsides? One thanked me greatly and then said that I was a great mentor to her. Another said, I do get that it shouldn’t been so tough to make such a small commitment, and I do need this. He returned respecting all boundaries and with a new sense of value for what he was giving/receiving. Another realized their current answer was a no, and said that my modeling of boundaries helped them to then have tough talks with boundary violators in their life and as a result, their relationships had improved. And another said they were so glad that I took the time to talk with them even though it was tough, that it was exactly what they needed. They went into a space of seeking God earnestly so they could commit to a yes or no answer.
I’m sure all of these conversations wont have happy endings, but there’s one thing I think you can count on. When you come to the point where its painful and scary for you to do, but you truly feel you need to ask “Are you in or are you out” you will likely be giving that person a gift many others have been too afraid to offer. And you will probably give yourself the gift of a lot less frustration too.
Jennifer Dawn Watts, MA is a therapist, speaker, blogger and Founder & CEO of Living Well Counselling Services Inc. She is also the Vice President of the Western division of the Professional Association of Canadian Christian Counsellors.