I have been sharing my favorite buffer phrases with a number of clients lately, and you might need this too, so here it is.
A very brief primer and some ideas to play with.
I’m only going to talk about one particular buffer phrase today as an example, but some day I will post a very long list of my favorites! I collect them! That probably does not surprise you at all.
As always, as we talk about things both personal and complicated, it helps to keep in mind some of the basic principles of self-fluency:
People Vary! Safety First! You get to adapt ideas and concepts to fit your life and circumstances. I am not the expert of you. You get to be the expert of you! We are all just practicing and learning about how to take exquisite care of ourselves in this challenging world.
So let’s take a breath and adjust our crowns, remembering our position in the world as the person who knows the most about what we need. Let’s enter as we wish to be in it, with curiosity and presence. We got this. Crown On.
Crown On is the ongoing practice of maintaining my own sense of sovereignty and awareness of agency.
What’s a buffer phrase?
A buffer phrase uses the magic of words to:
- interrupt an uncomfortable moment
- re-establish boundaries aka remind us that we get to have boundaries!
- buy more time so we can think of what we want to say or how we want to respond
- practice Safety First
- change the course of the interaction or situation that we currently find ourselves in *and* our habitual patterns.
Yay buffer phrases yay! They’re so good!
Buffer phrases are all about the superpower of Making Space To Make Space.
And they are so key in the work of Lovingly Interrupting Patterns In Order To Rewrite Them, which might be my favorite aspect of self-fluency.
Making space to make space
Let’s take a breath for that, because it is so very good.
Buffers make space. They remind us about boundaries. They remind us that we get to have this safe space between us and the world.
They are a Reclaiming, which has been one of the most meaningful and resonant words for me in this year of Dedication & Devotion.
Feeling-words make good buffers
Some of my all-time favorite buffer phrases involve just stating a feeling, and letting that feeling be expressed aloud. There is a lot of power in that, in part because it’s so unexpected.
Today we are going to work with the truly excellent and useful feeling of confusion:
I feel confused.
Here are some examples of I FEEL CONFUSED employed as a buffer, and I want to add that the trick to using buffer phrases effectively is to state them in as neutral a tone as possible, which requires practicing at home!
Here we go…
I feel confused! I am really unclear as to why you would be commenting on [my outfit / my size / my face / the contents of my grocery cart]…
I feel confused! I’m not sure what’s going on here, can you help me understand, what’s the nature of this interaction? Why are we having this conversation?
I feel confused! I definitely remember arriving ahead of you in line.
I feel confused! Why do you need that piece of information?
To be followed by: I am still feeling so confused! I’m not sure I feel comfortable sharing that. Is this not awkward? It’s really very awkward. Great, we are agreed.
Let’s talk about what is so useful with this particular buffer phrase
We’re bringing the conversation back to emotion
If someone makes an inappropriate comment and I start to argue with them, we argue. We stay on the mental level even though the discomfort in the interaction is happening in the body and on the emotional level which generally get ignored.
If I say, HEY I AM FEELING THIS FEELING, then we get to talk about the feeling.
Often people feel bad that you are feeling this feeling, and they want to help you not feel it. Which of course is extremely not their job, but at least they are no longer focused on needing to be right or trying to defend themselves, so hey, it’s a start.
People like to try to resolve confusion
Anger and disappointment are such difficult emotions for people because they will Make Shit About Them even when shit is not about them, because this is what people do when they don’t practice self-fluency.
And so, while our anger or disappointment is always legitimate (and our desire to express is is legitimate, and if we make that choice, a trillion sparklepoints to us!), people don’t know what to do with it and generally they freak out.
Again, people are going to make shit about them and interpret any perceived negative emotion as being directed at them, even if you specifically state that your feelings are a direct result of their words or behavior.
But confusion is just confusion. It’s almost a neutral emotion. Oh no, you’re feeling confused! They want to be helpful and sort that out! They want to help you solve and clarify!
Confusion can be a secret mirror
Sometimes naming your confusion can work as a mirror that helps them see how their behavior or comment was unwelcome, unnecessary or inappropriate.
Or maybe they still want to argue, or maybe they’re pretty committed to being someone who says unnecessary and inappropriate things, maybe they’re an asshole, who knows. You still win this moment because you bought yourself some reaction time, and you expressed a feeling which they had to contend with.
That’s what buffers do best. They create space.
Examples of times in my life I have not used this buffer but wish I had!
Let us summon the glorious and beautiful superpower of Do-Overs Forever!
Of course there are also times in my life in which I have used this buffer phrase to good effect in the moment, but I thought it might be more useful for our purposes here to work with Do-Overs, and I’m trying to keep this brief for once!
The time I shared intel with someone didn’t deserve it
Once I was sitting and writing at a cafe in Bishop, California, and a man came up and asked for my name and how to spell it.
I was so taken aback that I just gave him that information instead of saying WOW INAPPROPRIATE or THAT INFORMATION IS GIVEN ON A NEED TO KNOW BASIS, I’M AFRAID YOU DO NOT HAVE CLEARANCE.
(Those by the way are also excellent buffer phrases and worthy of practice!)
Here’s what I love about I FEEL CONFUSED
I love using I FEEL CONFUSED because it gives me time to check in with my emotions: how do I feel? What else do I feel? Do I want to answer this question?
When I imagine Do-Overs for this situation, which I do often, as self-therapy, I imagine Assertive Me saying, “I FEEL CONFUSED, why would you need that information from me and why would you expect it from me?”
She might also say, “I’m working and you are interrupting.”
She might also say, at full volume, “I FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE. WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME THAT?”
I love starting with I AM CONFUSED, because once I have that buffer space, I can think of what Assertive Me might say, and I can bring Assertive Me to the forefront.
The love story that fizzled
Once a friend and I started to have Big Feelings for each other. We got involved, making a really clear commitment that we would do whatever it takes to salvage the friendship no matter where the relationship went.
We texted all day every day for, I don’t know, seven months? We talked on the phone a lot. I was traveling for some of this but we stayed connected and always checking in with each other.
One evening he didn’t respond to my texts, and the next morning didn’t send his usual warm morning greetings. In the afternoon, I texted with a little vignette from the day, and he didn’t respond to that either.
After three days, I thought he might be dead? Like, actually googled to find out if he was dead. Until I realized that we had enough mutual friends who would have let me know.
By that time, I was too upset and couldn’t think of what to say (other than WTF DUDE), but I didn’t want to say that so I said nothing.
Do-Overs in my mind!
If I apply the principle of Do-Overs Forever, what I would like to have said is “Hey, I’m feeling confused. We usually talk about everything and I don’t know what’s going on, help me understand.”
I didn’t say anything because of past experiences, and not wanting to be perceived as needy or nagging or demanding, or other words I don’t like that people have put on me for wondering about disappearances.
If I am ever in a similar situation, I would like to bravely and clearly express the very useful emotion of confusion before getting to the point where the only emotion I could access is RAGING SET IT ON FIRE FURY.
Aka Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Left On Read For Ten Fucking Days Only To Get A What’s Up With No Explanation Or Apology
I have more examples but in a way they are all the same
Really an endless parade of life situations in which I froze, panicked, didn’t know how to respond, or just didn’t have words because I was feeling too sad or angry or hurt or bewildered.
Not going to get into a monster-train of regret here. As my former mentor used to say, there is good experience and useful experience.
And I would add to that: there really is also just shitty trauma experience, and if we aren’t at a point where we can find anything useful in that, no worries, life is full of hard things and we are doing the best we can to make it through, no pressure here to turn it into treasure.
Anyway, Useful Experience for me means recognizing the value in this vast experience of challenging moments. I am committed to getting better and better at interrupting each challenging moment as soon as possible to say, hey I feel confused, can we get some clarity here?
This is also, quite often, something I can do between me and me, in my relationship with myself. Express confusion and meet that confusion with love, show up in the interaction with curiosity, presence and love.
Does it always work?
Nope! There are no 100% always-yes solutions. Self-fluency is a grand experiment in trying things, learning about ourselves, and collecting useful information about what we need so that we can keep experimenting. It’s kind of like a video game.
Each time we find ourselves in a situation, whether brand new or eerily familiar, we can practice some of the things we want to practice.
And maybe at first that’s just taking lots of notes after the fact about Do-Overs! Because this stuff can be hard!
Here’s what I think though. If we were able to express how confused and bewildered we felt in a sitution while we were feeling this, that itself is brave and admirable and also super vulnerable, the kind of vulnerability that strengthens. So another trillion sparklepoints to us and a parade for how brave we were!
We tried something. That counts.
But quite often, I have found, pausing an interaction to express a feeling can significantly change the course and content of that interaction. It helps me stay steady and connected to myself, and it gives me some breathing room to feel into the next step. Worth trying.
Practice practice practice
That’s the work, right?
Practice, and meeting ourselves where we are, with as much love and compassion as we can muster in the moment. Which is also a form of practice.
I highly recommend practicing buffer phrases and practicing neutral tone. Suzette Haden Elgin wrote about this in her books, I would start with The Last Word On The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self-Defense.
Today I just gave one example of a buffer phrase and ways it might play out, but you are wise and capable, and I know you can apply this to other situations and invent new ones. Someday I will post about my very large and always-growing collection of buffer phrases.
(Some favorites: Wow. REALLY. No. No thank you. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t think so. BEGONE!)
A reminder about things to keep in mind
As always, People Vary. You get to change and adapt any technique or concept so that it works for you, your needs, your situation, with full respect for Safety First.
And also I want to just add that yes, micro-aggressions are real, also actual aggression, and traumatic shit happens all the time, and there are lots of assholes in the world, and sometimes the right response is the angry one, or the running away, or a loud HEY THAT’S INAPPROPRIATE (another useful and excellent buffer that I use fairly often), use what you’ve got, whatever works.
I am a huge fan of Whatever Works
So please know that I support whatever you experiment with and however you experiment.
I support whatever you come up with in the moment, and hey, sometimes we are just trying to survive, Safety First!
And I support you for trying things. I support your process. I am FOR YOU. I think you are marvelous!
Let’s appreciate ourselves for trying, if we can!
Seriously, this stuff is hard, or can be, this work is subversive and challenging, it goes against cultural programming, and it asks us to be conscious, attentive, present and brave. You are a star for existing.
Let’s take some breaths for that.
A breath for the superpower of You’re Doing Amazing, Sweetie, and a breath for We’ve Got This, and a breath for in process, and a breath for this new day, a breath for being Conscious and Free.
And come play with me in the comments!
You’re welcome to share anything sparked for you! You’re welcome to share any favorite buffer phrases you’re working with. You’re welcome to think out loud, invoke superpowers, or throw around cascading showers of sparklepoint confetti and bask in them with me.
As always, this is safe space for just being and hanging out. We don’t give advice, we don’t do caretaking. We take exquisite care of ourselves and make room for everyone to be here. You are welcome and loved. Let’s play!
I am doing a training next week in which I try to teach people who like to argue how not to argue. I will be teaching buffer phrases, and I am adding this to the list. Thank you.
I often use “I will think about that” as a buffer phrase. It is true! I think a lot. And sometimes, I want to give myself time to not default to the “good” or expected answer that leaps into my mind. Buffer phrases totally do help!
Today (a thousand sparkle points for me!), I told my lady friend that I would think about her request to spend part of our anniversary trip having lunch with her sister (who can be difficult). I’m thinking about all the questions I want to ask about why and what it means. I want to talk about the time it will take and the effort it will cost. I want her to know that this will not be a joyful thing for me (at best, it will be…ok).
And my buffer phrase gave me time to think about this stuff.
Love “I will think about that” as a buffer phrase.
Thank you for this wonderfully useful addition to my own Buffer Phrase stash! I often employ something along the lines of yours, Kalidascopic Claire, usually “ooh, I’ll have a think about that”, which gives the impression that I am not instantly dismissing even if my actual internal response goes something like “Never in a million years will I agree to this, I can’t believe you even asked me”. But that has limited applications: I can already see multiple examples of “I’m confused” coming in very handy! xxx
I have used “I feel confused” to pretty good effect in the kind of Meetings Where Everyone Is Acting Like We All Know What Is Going On but we really don’t. Some people, a minority, take my “admitting” to being confused as a sign of weakness but those are the people who weren’t going to be helpers anyway? Others usually chime in that they are also confused, which leads to a much better and more productive meeting of Actual Problem Solving instead of lame posturing.
But I had never considered this option for those times when someone does, says, or asks something so wildly inappropriate and boundary transgressing that I quite often just am actually super confused. Like WTF why would you say this right now?! Like one of 10,000 times a strange man has in some way or another told me to be prettier/more agreeable for his viewing pleasure? Or when a coworker asks me to justify why I’m ONLY willing to “volunteer” to come in one Saturday a month instead of four… etc. Love it.
Oh this is so good. A great phrase for meetings, because it’s like, OKAY LET’S CLARIFY WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING HERE, which everyone wants. Way too many meetings have gone way too long for a lack of clarifying. Clarifying! Yes!
Today, I noticed that “I’m confused” can replace “I’m sorry.” I can say, “I’m confused; I thought the deadline was on Thursday rather than tomorrow” when I would normally say, “I’m sorry, I thought the deadline was on Thursday rather than tomorrow.” I don’t need to apologize for it!
Ah another excellent use! Circumventing reflexive unnecessary apology patterns!
A collection of Buffer Phrases would make a terrific e-book!
I am tossing sparklepoint confetti into the air, because I appreciate buffer phrases!
“I feel confused” is a great one. I also like “i’ll have to get back to you on this.” If it feels right, I may add something like “next week” or “soon” but if I feel the need for more open-ended space than that, then I do my best to give it to myself.
Grooving on another of your wonderful posts, and especially enjoying how the list of buffer phrases is a sentence all its own:
“Wow. REALLY. No. No thank you. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t think so. BEGONE!”
Lovely. Simply lovely.
I’m glad i read this today. Will have to think about how/if I can use this with a senior colleague who shares his (right-wing…) political opinions with me every other day. Ughhh.
Also, more generally: today was the worst day of mindless, mind-numbing pellet-pushing. Having this word is really the only silver-lining. I need to make peace with the way this day went. Thanks for naming names!
Good intel! I am confused by Things in Life quite often. When I’m confused suddenly by another person, I think I get an “I’m confused” expression on my face while I’m trying to process what is happening because before I can say anything, the person will say, “You look confused.” Sparklepoints for non-verbal expression. But I will practice stating it.
Also, “Let’s clarify where we are at” will be useful in meetings where I’m Recording Secretary so everyone can pause and I can restate what I have written and thought I heard to make sure I got the dates, ideas, who is doing what, and motions and their status entered correctly in the Minutes.
A boundary-defense expression I use when a person strongly states a preference for a food, “You can have my adult lifetime supply of That.” Or if they hate a food I love, I’ll offer to take their adult lifetime supply, say of chocolate. So I’m not thinking, “Wow, they eat gross things!” I’m thinking, “Wow, they eat stuff I don’t like, isn’t that amazing!”