If someone crosses a boundary, is getting too personal, or makes you feel uncomfortable with their line of questioning, here’s a helpful guide to navigating your response
You were likely raised to be polite to everyone. It’s just good manners, right? But what happens when courteous conversation crosses the line? Whether it’s an ill-advised query about sexuality, or a deeper interrogation about political leanings, there are certain people who – perhaps unknowingly – invade your emotional space.
Instead of automatically answering and regretting it later, here are a few pointers on how to navigate those dreaded intrusive questions when they arise.
Pause before you act.
Start by trying to get a sense of the other person’s motives. Not only will this buy you a few minutes of thinking time, but it also transfers the weight of responsibility back on to the questioner to explain why they felt the need to ask. If you’re lucky, they may backtrack, and realise they’ve acted out of turn. Plus, you’ll gently show them what it feels like to be questioned, which can open up the conversation to an equal blend of sharing and listening.
Try: That’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?
Consider whether you are emotionally ready to answer.
It’s normal to feel a sense of panic when a stranger, colleague, or even family member asks you to communicate something you deem private. You might have a physical reaction (sweaty palms, increased heart rate), as well as an emotional response (crying, a sense of dread), and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Therapeutic counsellor Nora Portnell suggests using these signals as a way to determine your ability and willingness to engage in the conversation. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling and where in the body am I feeling it?’ Your emotions are signals telling you to act, move, or be still. Allow the emotions to guide you. They are your gut instinct.”
Know that you have the right to say no.
Just because someone asks you a question, does not mean you are obliged to respond. Don’t feel pressured into sharing, although it is worth acknowledging that in some cultures there may be no other option. If you are choosing not to answer, that doesn’t mean you need to respond abruptly. Try these techniques:
- Be honest and divert the topic back to the other person. I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about that, so I’d rather not get into it. How are things with you?
- Deflect with humour, if appropriate. The story behind that is so long and boring, honestly, you’d regret asking me! Can we talk about something fun instead?
Follow up by saying thank you to show that you appreciate them respecting your boundaries.
Try to engage in a two-way conversation.
If you are open to sharing your response, or for cultural reasons feel you must answer, Nora says that reflecting on their projections is a good place to start. Let’s use anger as an example. “Ask yourself to consider why they feel angry,” says Nora. “Is there a possible conversation you could have that would get them to appreciate that your journey and theirs are separate?”
You could point to a difference in age, gender, background, interests, or personality traits that mean they may never fully understand your choices. To de-escalate, are there any words or phrases that have calmed you in the past that might help them now? Ask for their perspective on the situation, and respect that everyone has a right to their opinion before you share yours.
Try: That’s an interesting question. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Or: I’m not sure what I think about that. How do you feel about the situation?
Prioritise your safety.
When approached by a stranger, you have a few options. Firstly, you could attempt to ignore the question, perhaps choosing to walk away or put headphones in. Secondly, if with a friend, look to them for support in shutting down the conversation.
Try: Would you mind telling that person that I’m having a bad day, and don’t want to talk to anyone?
Thirdly, if you feel safe to do so, answer with compassion, and steer the conversation to a light-hearted resolution.
Try: I get that question a lot, but it’s kind of personal. How’s your day been so far?
Upholding boundaries is an ongoing process, and one that can still catch you off-guard even after years of practice. Be kind to yourself as you figure it out, and don’t forget to reflect on the times when you share openly and get a positive response. Pat yourself on the back for doing the work!