We humans

How to deflect nosy questions, stop advice-givers, fend off criticism and more

Jun 1, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Boundaries are a process. There’s no magic pill that ensures a perfect execution — but the tools and scripts that follow will help you create a foundation to build on.

As you try them out, keep the words that work for you, practice them and open your mind to the vast options for responding mindfully, constructively and truthfully. The more integrated the words become, the less you’ll have to think. Truth will come out of your mouth with ease (and maybe even speed). Eventually you’ll find that sweet spot of healthy assertiveness — not too passive and not too aggressive.

Especially in the beginning, give yourself permission to set boundaries messily, badly or while sweating profusely. What matters most is that you do it.

Script #1: What to say when someone asks you something you’re just not sure about

As you start to flex your boundary muscles, pause to take stock of what you truly desire, especially if you’re prone to auto-accommodating and over-functioning. It can often be helpful to buy yourself more time to assess the situation and figure out specifically what you want.

Here are a few ways to do that:

● “I need a minute to regroup. Can we pick this up in a half hour?”
● “Can we chat about this later today, after I’ve had more time to think about it?” Once you’ve reflected, you can serve up a clear, charge-free “no”, depending on the context.
To a friend who wants you to go to a dinner that sounds shoot-me-now painful: “I’m going to say no to dinner, but I’d love to catch up another time.”
To the colleague who wants you to help with a project that’s beyond the scope of your specialty, interest or duty: “I can’t, unfortunately. But once I finish up my current deadline, I’ll circle back to see if there’s a way I can support you.”

You don’t owe anyone your personal information, especially not to satisfy their curiosity.

Script #2: What to say to deflect nosy questions

Often, my clients and students believe that they owe other people explanations and answers about anything and everything. In reality, you’re under no obligation to respond to nosy questions, even if they’re not overtly offensive. You don’t owe anyone your personal information, especially not to satisfy their curiosity.

Here are a few ways to sidestep nosy questions:

To someone who asks how much money you make: “Trust me, not even close to what I’m worth.”
To someone who asks about your love life: “I’d rather not discuss it right now. When I have news to share, I’ll let you know.”
To a colleague who asks what you plan to do with your day off: “That’s why they call it a personal day!” or “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

If the person persists, repeat your stock answer. Depending on the relationship and level of aggression, you can add, “And that’s all I have to say.”

Script #3: What to say when someone is giving you unsolicited advice

If you want to share news or a personal dilemma with a friend, relative or colleague who is often quick to give you their opinion, you can set them up for success by starting with a qualifier, such as:

● “I have a situation I want to share with you. Can you just listen with compassion, please?”
● “I want to share what is going on for me and I ask that you simply listen without offering advice or criticism. I’d really appreciate that.”

If you forget to use one of those qualifiers or worry that they’re too confrontational, you can still halt their auto-advice — ‘cause you know it’s coming — with:

● “At the moment, I’m not looking for feedback. I would love it if you could just lend a compassionate ear.”

And in relationships — especially long-standing ones where the other party has a well-established fixer role — you might want to offer more context about what you’re striving for:

● “I love that you are always game to help me out. What I’d appreciate right now is for you to listen and have faith I’ll come to the answer on my own.”

Do not allow anyone to use their so-called “truth” as a stick to beat you with. Your truth is the one that matters most.

Script #4: What to say when someone is judgmental or critical of you

Veiled criticism can be worded in a way that sounds helpful or caring, but if your body wisdom starts to pipe up, you know that their judgment is crossing a line. When a friend, family member or coworker makes a rude comment and then says, “I’m just being honest,” you may feel inclined to accept their words, even though they make you feel bad.

I say: Don’t.

Someone who gives you genuinely constructive criticism is actually rooting for you — they care about you, and they’re initiating a hard conversation to clue you in to something important. If you respect this person and know them to be genuine, you will likely be open to their feedback.

But comments about how you wore the wrong dress or how bad your hair looks? Not constructive. The next time someone tells you how unflattering your jeans are or reminds you of a less-than-stellar track record in love, you can say:

● “I don’t recall asking you.”
● “What you call ‘honesty’, I call you ‘giving me your unsolicited opinion and criticism’. Please don’t.”

If you are in a relationship with someone who hides behind the “just being honest” shield, don’t put yourself in the line of fire. For example, if your super-negative friend says, “You got your hair cut,” do not open the door for her to give you an insult by asking her, “Do you like it?” You can simply reply, “Yes, I did.”

Do not allow anyone to use their so-called “truth” as a stick to beat you with. When it comes to your life, your truth is the one that matters most.

Script #5: What to say when a line has been crossed

The number-one challenge I see with my clients and students is uncertainty about how to tell someone that they’ve crossed a line. Often, if you can open up a conversation, the rest will flow. Quickly alerting the other person to your feelings, concerns, or objections can stop an easily corrected misstep or misunderstanding from turning into something more.

Here are some basic conversation starters that will help you get the ball rolling:

● “I thought you should know . . .”
● “I wanted to bring something to your attention. The other day, I felt uncomfortable when . . .”
● “I need to share my experience of what went down, because I’d like you to understand how I feel and where I am coming from . . .”
● “I want you to be aware of my feelings about what happened . . .”

One of my go-to formulas that I have been using and teaching for many years, for expressing when a boundary has been violated, is a four-part nonviolent communication process. It was originated by Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD in his seminal book by the same name.

Here’s a quick summary:

“When I see/experience ______________, I feel ______________ because my need for ______________ is not met. Would you be willing to ______________?”

This process is effective because you’re not calling names or making judgments. You are helping the other party understand how you feel and communicating the specific action that will alleviate your upset. As with all of these  scripts or suggestions, you can use this framework and make it your own.

Excerpted from the new book Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free by Terri Cole. Copyright © 2021 Terri Cole. Published by Sounds True in April 2021. 

Watch her TEDxHoboken Talk here: