Updated: Jan 24
Trauma-informed leaders know that healthy boundaries are essential for healthy relationships—in and out of work.
But setting and reinforcing your boundaries can be challenging when you haven’t had a lot of practice. That’s why we’ve provided these boundary phrases to help you maintain healthy relationships at work by saying no and setting expectations in a kind and trauma-informed way.
As you read through these boundary phrases, keep in mind that not all phrases are right for all people or all situations. Take the phrases that work for you, modify these phrases as you see fit, or ignore the phrases that don’t feel right. There isn’t a single “right answer” here—only tools to add to your toolkit.
1 - “I don’t have the time or energy to do that right now”
Saying no can be an extreme challenge for some people. Many people feel that they have to say yes when asked to do something, especially when it’s asked by someone higher up in the office hierarchy.
If that’s not you, this boundary phrase can still come in handy! If that is you, consider practicing this boundary phrase out loud to get used to it.
If you worry about hurting other people’s feelings or offending them by saying no to a request, you can soften the blow of this boundary phrase with an “I’m sorry.”
Being honest about what you have to give is better than giving too much and suffering from burnout and resentment. So, don’t be afraid to say no!
2 - “My workload is too full to take on another project”
Saying no can be really challenging when you do genuinely want to help someone out. But you need to be honest with yourself and others about your abilities. If you end up taking on too much, you and your work will suffer.
Being the “Yes Person” at work is harmful to you, and it’s okay to face the facts: you’ve already got too much on your plate.
3 - “You can reach out to me any time, but I will only respond during business hours”
Saying no isn’t the only way to set a boundary. Boundaries are also about setting expectations. It’s common for some people to work outside of business hours, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it can become an issue when colleagues expect others to also be available all the time.
If you have a colleague who seems to always be available, you can use this boundary phrase to communicate that it’s okay to email you at 10 PM, but they shouldn’t expect an immediate response from you.
And if you’re a late-night worker, then it can also be helpful to share that you don’t expect them to get back to you quickly when you message late at night (especially if you have more power at work). Sharing reasonable expectations that are considerate of others creates safety.
4 - “I don’t feel comfortable doing that”
In trauma-informed organizations, we train and encourage workers to share their honest feelings. And while it can be beneficial to step into discomfort, there may be some situations where the discomfort comes from a lack of safety rather than an opportunity for growth.
You can modify this boundary phrase by saying, “I don’t feel safe doing that,” or following up with, “I would like some support, guidance, or training first.”
5 - “Can we pause this conversation and pick it back up later?”
This boundary phrase is great to use when someone (including yourself) is experiencing a trauma response and needs time and space to cool down, regulate, and think.
Safety language is incredibly important, and when you add “pause” to your dictionary, you have a single word filled with meaning that can communicate a lot of ideas at once.
When we pause, it means we’re not ending the conversation—we’re just taking a break. It signifies that we’ll pick up right where we left off. And when both parties are trauma-informed, it can also signal that there’s a trauma response happening or that one person doesn’t feel good about what’s happening in the conversation.
In addition to pause, you can also try adding rewind or fast forward to your dictionary to create more safety at work.
6 - “I can help you with this, but I can only give you an hour of my time”
Setting boundaries isn’t all about saying “no.” It’s also about saying “yes, but…” (not to be confused with the popular and beloved “yes, and…” approach).
When we use a “yes, but…” boundary phrase, we share what we are willing to and intend to give to someone else. We can be clear about any restrictions to the favor or what we will or will not tolerate.
In some cases, this might be about time. In others, you might want to clarify the level of effort you can give. For example, maybe you can only skim someone’s document instead of proofreading it thoroughly.
7 - “I don’t want to talk about that at work”
This boundary phrase is a flexible one. You can use it whenever you find yourself in a conversation you do not want to be a part of. If you’re being asked invasive questions or notice the topic of conversation shift into uncomfortable or unsafe territory, this boundary phrase is useful.
You can also modify this phrase as, “I don’t want to talk about that right now,” if you’re okay talking about that topic at work.
8 - “I don’t share that information with my colleagues”
There is nothing wrong with sharing your personal information with your colleagues. Vulnerability helps us grow closer to our coworkers—but that vulnerability cannot be forced. If you have nosy colleagues who ask you personal questions you’d prefer not to answer, you are allowed to decline that invitation.
Instead of crossing your own boundary and sharing more than you want to, you can use this boundary phrase.
9 - “I prefer to keep that private”
This boundary phrase is very similar to the last one, but it can feel more authentic if there are certain colleagues you would share that information with.
It’s okay for you to keep certain information private from certain colleagues. Relationships at work aren’t based on a one-size-fits-all model (which is a terrible system).
You get to decide what parts of your personal life you share at work.
10 - “I don’t agree with that”
For many of us, it can be challenging to speak our minds when we disagree. A lot of us would rather avoid conflict and remain agreeable instead of voicing our opinions.
In a trauma-informed workplace, everyone feels safe enough to share their honest ideas and opinions. This has the potential to create conflict, which then gives us an opportunity to navigate that conflict in a safe and healthy way.
This boundary phrase can be used to say, “I think a different idea would work better,” or “Choosing that strategy is a mistake” when discussing decisions at work, but it can also serve as a way to directly address problematic issues, such as stereotypes or harmful gossip.
11 - “What an odd thing to say out loud.”
Sometimes when someone says something racist, sexist, or inappropriate, we’re caught off guard, and we don’t know what to say. Being direct can feel too confrontational for some people, so an indirect boundary phrase is good to have on hand.
This boundary phrase uses indirect communication to show that you don’t agree, and it also adds some social pressure that encourages a person to rethink what they’ve just shared.
This boundary phrase is courtesy of Kami Orange on TikTok.
Create Your Own Boundary Phrases
These boundary phrases are a great place to start, and as you continue on your trauma-informed journey, you’ll start to use your own custom boundary phrases that work best for you at home and at work.
Consider customizing these boundary phrases to sound more true to yourself, or take some time to write your own boundary phrases after reflecting on interactions where you wish you had set a boundary.
Then, with your short list of boundary phrases, you’ll be ready to set expectations and say no without hesitating.