Wisdom//

10 Assertive But Polite Ways to Ask for the Space You Need

Whether you’re seated next to a talker on a plane, want to shop in peace, or need alone time at work, these tactics will do the trick.

Claudiad/Getty Images
Claudiad/Getty Images

Sometimes, you just need a little breathing room. Maybe you want to shop in peace without the help of a chipper salesperson, get through a flight without a seat mate’s chatter, or do some solo work without colleagues stopping by to chat. Other times, you may crave some time away from loved ones to recharge and gather your thoughts.

No matter the setting, asking for the space you need boils down to striking the perfect balance between assertiveness and politeness — which can be deceptively tricky.

That’s why we asked our Thrive Global community for their tried-and-tested strategies for getting out of draining conversations and obligations so they can take the mental breaks they need. Which of these methods will you try?

When you want to browse in peace

“When I need space or alone time, I sometimes don't make it known verbally, but rather, by having earbuds in! Honestly, they’re lifesavers. When I need to decompress, I stick them in and don't make eye contact with anyone. It works well when I'm shopping and don't want to be assisted by any sales people. I just want to browse in peace.”

—Sophia Jacob, event planner, Ottawa, CA

When you’re seated beside a “talker” on a plane

“I simply say, ‘You’ll have to forgive me, but I need to review these documents before we touch down.’ It’s subtle enough that the garrulous passenger gets the message, but it has never offended anyone. But of course, you need to have a few papers in your carry-on.”

—Dr. Marlene Caroselli, author, Pittsford, NY

When you need a parenting break

“We ‘tag out’ with a high five. Both my husband and I are busy entrepreneurs managing the demands of business, making healthy dinners, planning date nights, and raising our almost 5-year-old. We’re also managing his after-school activities and renovations at home. We're a team and share all of the responsibilities, but if one of us has had a crazy day and patience is low with each other or our son, we ‘tag out.’ It could mean that he steps in and finishes bathing our son, or I take over putting away the laundry. We know it only takes a second to say words we regret, and it's not worth wasting energy if we just need a moment to breathe!”

—Lisa Pezik, business strategist and content expert, Ontario, CA

When a conversation has run its course

“My phrase is, ‘It's been great to talk, (look) I know you are busy, so I won't keep you any longer.’ It’s a gentle and kind-yet-obvious indication that you want to leave! It works without offending anyone and isn’t hard to do because it's true, and implies that the other person’s time is valuable too.”

—Amberli Hartwell, midlife crisis coach, Bristol, U.K.

When you’re turning down plans

“My go-to catch phrase when I’m feeling overstimulated is, ‘I’m going to do my own thing right now, but thank you so much for including me.’ This seems to work well for me because it’s a polite way to turn someone down without making them feel rejected. It’s easy to be curt and say that you need to be alone, but that begs the questions, ‘Why?’ or ‘What’s wrong?’ But nine times out of 10, there’s nothing wrong, you just need space. So I use this line a lot when my friends make plans to go out for the fourth night in a row, or want to go to an exuberant dinner that I didn’t budget for. They seem responsive to this turn down. Everyone needs space — we’re not meant to constantly connect with people, no matter what social media tries to tell you. Just take a breath, be polite and know it’s okay to want that for yourself.”

—Sammi Sontag, journalism student and Thrive Global Campus Editor-at-Large at the University of Florida

When you take a family “time out”

“I live in a small house with four kids, ages 11 to 17. When they were small, it was easy to find space, not to mention that smaller kids mostly parallel play. I have stressed that we all need quiet, alone time as we’ve all begun growing into our own people. I will often say, ‘I (Mommy) needs a time alone time out, I'll be available in 15 minutes.’ It helps to let them know I need a time out and when I will be available again.”

—Renee Baude, mindfulness teacher, Chicago, IL

When you want to keep a confrontation from escalating

“Asking someone to step away requires an immense amount of self-awareness, which is also part of practicing self-care. If you don't know what you want, you’ll never be able to claim your quiet spot. So what's worked for me is fairly simple. I just say, ‘How about we sleep over it,’ ‘Let's not jump to conclusions’ or ‘I’m in a bit of a fix, and need some time to reflect.’ But I try to watch my tone at all times, too. This helps me prevent a discussion from becoming an ugly confrontation."

—Sharanya Manola, freelance writer, Paris, FR

When you need to honor your inner introvert

“Saying, ‘I love you, but I need alone time’ is the simple phrase that has saved my life (and the lives of my family members, trust me). Blending an introverted family with an extroverted one is often complete chaos, and as the leader of the introverted piece of the pie, I need my alone time. After two years of hiding my need for alone time to avoid hurting my family’s feelings (and after I had a complete mental breakdown), my husband and I created this simple sentence. It shows my family that I love them, but also that I desperately need to recharge my batteries. This simple sentence works wonders for the safety of everyone in my life.”

—Carrie McEachran, executive director, Ontario, CA

When you’re trying to get a spouse to understand where you’re coming from

“By the time we actually ask for space, we are often in desperate need of it, because we don’t feel entitled to it and don’t grant it to ourselves. Once we give ourselves permission to have the space we need in an ongoing way — with family, at work, or just going through our day — asking others to honor it becomes a non-issue. We can do it lovingly and respectfully. From telling a salesperson, ‘I’m fine but I’ll ask for your help if I need it,’ to telling a spouse, ‘When I have time alone, I can be more present with you when we’re together.’”

—Dr. Barbara Vacarr, CEO, Stockbridge, MA

When you’re just overwhelmed

“Questions are the answer. Honest questions, not statements, work the best for me. Nobody likes to be rejected or feel like they aren’t important. So, I put my reason for needing space in the form of a sincere question. ‘Have you ever had one of those days when you’re overwhelmed and need a little time for yourself?’ You’ll be amazed at how quickly most people will shift their attention to your needs. Often, they’ll offer to check back with you later. Sometimes, they’ll even ask if there’s anything they can do for you. The key is to adapt your question to honestly reflect how you’re feeling.”

—Todd Garrett, marketing, Nashville, TN

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