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Line in the Sand

Conflict Management Coaching Blog by Cinnie Noble

You have likely heard the metaphor about drawing a line in the sand, and might have used it yourself to set boundaries. For instance, if someone asks you to do something that’s antithetical to your values you might respond that you ‘draw the line in the sand’ and decline to do so – meaning essentially, you have a limit to what you agree to do (refusing to be untrue to yourself).

The exact origin of this expression is unknown. According to Wikipedia, “the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a transitional use from 1950, but a definitely figurative use only as late as 1978”. Here are the two examples:

“He drew a line in the sand with the toe of his boot, and said, ‘It’s as though I told you “I can punch you in the nose, but you can’t reach across that line to hit me back.” – The Washington Post, 19 December 1950

Notwithstanding the supposed public revulsion toward more federal spending, waste and bureaucracy-building, Congress seems to have gone out of its way to draw a wide line in front of Carter. – The Washington Post, 29, October, 1978”

Many other uses have followed over time, and the idiom is commonly referred to in conflict situations when someone expects something of the other that exceeds their level of toleration – triggering off a dispute or at least, unsettling feelings and questions. It might be when others’ expectations or ‘asks’ of us seem like a test or a challenge, and beyond what is acceptable. We might experience the asking person as being unduly needy, nervy, unrealistic, crass, inappropriate, narcissistic, and so on. Or, we might ponder that the other person must be in trouble, or in pain, or are taking a chance that we might cooperate and support their requests and help fulfil their needs. Context and the relationship are, of course, important variables when we determine our own reactions.

In any case, when we experience expectations of others as being beyond our thresholds of acceptability we are faced with a dilemma about how to respond. This week’s Conflict Mastery Quest(ions) blog asks you to consider an interpersonal conflict in which you drew the line.

  • What is the nature of the conflict?
  • What specifically occurred that you felt the need to ‘draw a line in the sand’ (what was the other person’s expectations)?
  • What values, needs, expectations, etc. did you experience as being undermined or challenged in this situation – that resulted in you drawing the line?
  • If you experienced the other person’s expectation of you as a test of some sort what might they have been testing?
  • In what way did you draw the line (something you said, did, didn’t do, etc.)?
  • How might you describe the impact on you of drawing the line in the sand?
  • What was the impact on the other person?
  • What was the outcome of the interaction after you drew the line?
  • When someone has drawn a line with you – about something you asked of them – what was that like?
  • How is the scenario in the previous question relevant (if it is) to what has gone on between you and the other person in the situation you first described (with this set of questions)?
  • Over time, what have you learned is the optimal way of responding to someone who crosses your line? What have you learned about the optimal way of drawing the line when you realize you have crossed someone else’s?
  • What else occurs to you as you consider these questions?
  • What insights do you have?

Cinnie Noble

Cinnie Noble is a certified coach (PCC) and mediator and a former lawyer specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You. MORE >

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