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Use These ‘Boundary Phrases’ During Uncomfortable Conversations

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Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

Whether it’s your coworker, sibling, or a stranger making small talk: Most people aren’t crossing boundaries on purpose. (Then again, family members do know exactly how to push your buttons.) It’s important to set different kinds of personal boundaries—and the first step is knowing yourself and where you personally draw the line around different behaviors. But it’s one thing to speak up when someone drastically steps out of line; what about more innocuous boundary-crossing? What about the quick off-color joke, or the slightly uncomfortable personal question?

On the day-to-day, you might not have the time or energy to constantly assert your boundaries and engage in a potential confrontation. In times like this, when the script is unclear, having some key “boundary phrases” at-the-ready can help you handle someone who crosses the line.

Use these phrases to set boundaries in a conversation

In this TikTok, boundary coach and content creator Kami Orange uses “Hmmm. What an odd thing to say?” as an example of a go-to boundary phrase. Orange also notes that not all phrases will apply to every situation or work for every relationship. For instance, saying “What an odd thing to ask,” might work when someone asks a question that’s overly personal, but it might not be sufficient in the face a racist comment. You’ll have to use your judgment before you use an autopilot response.

Here are some examples to start building your arsenal of personal boundary phrases:

  • What an odd thing to say.
  • I don’t have time for this.
  • Let’s come back to this in a couple of hours after we’ve both had time to think.
  • I’m not obligated to explain myself to you.
  • That’s not going to work for me.
  • Let me pause you right there.
  • That’s actually not up for discussion.
  • I know you think that’s “just a joke,” but it’s not funny.
  • Why did you just say that?
  • Why would you ask me that?
  • Do you think that’s appropriate?
  • Could you explain what’s funny about that?
  • Thank you for your concern about [x]. I’ll take it from here.
  • Perhaps we should just google it.

Again, the goal here isn’t to memorize these phrases word-for-word. It’s to have a little preparation, so you’re ready to create space between you and an impending conflict.

When to stay silent, and when to speak up

Sometimes the best tactic is to let your silence speak for itself. If your coworker asks an out-of-bounds question about your love life, you might choose not to respond to signal that you won’t even begin to engage. If a family member keeps hounding you about your career choices, “no comment” can help stave off a nasty fight.

Then again, you don’t want your silence to enable the other person’s comment. If someone is spreading misinformation or hate, you have a responsibility to speak up—even if it’s uncomfortable. Some sort of boundary phrase is better than remaining silent, and the scripted phrases above can help make sure you aren’t left flustered or at a loss for words.

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