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Recently in these pages, Meredith MC commented that “for my birthday this year, I decided that my gift to myself would be to use the phrase ‘let me get back to you,’ instead of immediately saying yes to every request. I feel like I have an eight-year-old girl living in my brain who just wants everyone to like her, and she pipes up whenever someone wants my time and energy. This has left me overworked and resentful when I’ve agreed to things without pausing for thought.”

Meredith continued, “I tried saying ‘let me get back to you’ for the first time last week, and it was so wonderful to have the time and space to consider what I wanted. And to have liberation from the insecure little girl in my head. I believe everyone who habitually says ‘yes’ without thinking should try it.”

What could be better than a self-care success, right out of the gate? Happy birthday, Meredith, and may your liberation continue all year, and beyond!

If you would like to take a leaf out of Meredith’s book, read on.

“Let me get back to you” is an example of what my friend Havi Brooks calls a “buffer phrase.” It’s a stock phrase you have memorized and so can summon under pressure, and it puts a little space, a buffer, between a request and the consequences of saying “yes” too fast. A buffer phrase won’t get you out of jail for free, but it will buy you a little time to pull together your defense.

When to Use Your Buffer Phrase

  • When you need time to consider whether you want to do something. You don’t know yet!
  • When you are 100 percent clear you want to say No!!! A thousand times No! A WORLD of No! but belligerence would not be called for.
  • When you know you don’t want to say yes, but you’d like to formulate a response most likely to be met with peaceful acceptance, if possible.
  • And if peaceful acceptance is impossible or unlikely, when you need time to brace yourself for pushback.
  • Or, just for the practice! You can use your buffer phrase when you mean to say yes, just to “rep it out,” as practitioners of many disciplines say.
  • When you want to teach everyone to expect you to consider requests instead of always saying yes right away.

One time I was flying from Puerto Vallarta to Boston, just having finished a Zen retreat. (Well, it was more of a vacation. And a spot of meditation.) My retreat roommate and I had been assigned two seats in a three-seat economy row, and the other seat was empty. The pilot had just introduced herself and her also female co-pilot—a first and only for me!—and we were just high-fiving each other over all the good vibes when the flight attendant came by to ask if we would give up our row to a couple with a baby. They would be more comfortable, and we would have a flight experience no worse than usual.

I was aware of feeling startled first, and then resentful as thoughts of sexism occurred. Would we have been asked if we’d been men? (Not a chance.) But I was silent until I saw the stricken look on my friend’s face, and then out of my mouth popped, “Can you give us a moment?”

The attendant said yes, of course, and my friend said, “Omigosh, thank you, I was just feeling so grateful to have a little space to reacclimate after being on retreat, and I would have hated being squeezed in after the gift of an empty seat.”

The flight attendant never came back.

Anyway, that’s why we need buffer phrases. Our training as women is about accommodating others. (Side note: As a student of Zen, or heck, a HUMAN!, you do plenty of that anyway. We’re just trying to interrupt an unhealthy and inflexible reflex.) But as adults, we must take care of ourselves first, because if we don’t, our self-neglect is gonna roll downhill on someone we love.

Nevertheless, not everyone will greet our buffer phrase with glad cries of Of course you must take time to decide what is best! In fact, people might get mad at us—and then they go to Plan B! Because people are resourceful.

But some other things might happen, too. One is that we gain a lot more time in our life, as well as the emotional space to decide what we want to do with it. (WORTH it!)

Another thing that happens when we practice using buffer phrases, as noted above, is that they get a whole lot easier to use. We say them, we don’t get kicked out of the tribe, we survive, and our survival panic subsides. Then we’re able to say “Let me get back to you” without the internal drama, and that dials down the external drama like a charm.

And in that drama-free space, we get to consider what’s best for us, along with what’s best for everyone else.

Resources and More Buffer Phrases

  • “I have some things in flux right now; I’ll have to let you know.” — Lisa Sonora Beam
  • “I have a policy of [never/always doing X]. It’s not personal, it’s a policy!” Origin unknown.
  • Alternatively, from Martha Beck: Just tell them the truth.
  • And Shonda Rhimes’s memoir Year of Yes is also about saying no. Sometimes you have to say no to another to say yes to yourself.


Can I get back to you on that?
IMAGE: Converserende man en vrouw op een landweg, Jacob Ernst Marcus, 1812, Rijksmuseum.

Do you have a buffer phrase? Do you wish you had one? Discussion over in The Lounge, “Self-Care: Buying Ourselves a Little Time.”

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • My friends and I have saying that we use to back up our responses of “Let me get back to you.” To support each other when we’re struggling with decisions to put ourselves before other people, we say, “Just because it fits in your schedule, doesn’t mean it fits in your life.” We all seem to have this visceral response that if we can do something for someone, we should, regardless of the personal toll. Finally, at the ripe age of 50-something, we’re giving ourselves permission to say no. Thanks for the great piece.

    • I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your saying.

    • Brilliant phrase!

  • Thank you Max, for more ways to buy a little time and head space. I have to admit, I got a huge adrenaline rush the first time I used my buffer phrase( I love that term). It felt a little risky. Having done it a few times now, I’ve noticed that people are fine with it, respect it even, because it shows you value your time.
    Thank you also for this column- it has been such a gift to have permission and encouragement to take care of myself, and to learn how to respectfully not be a doormat. I see now that when you value your time, other people start to as well.

  • Similar but not quite the same: About 10 years ago, I started a new job and my new boss coached me on the professional approach of “the prepared response.” If you know that in a certain situation, a certain person may respond in a certain way, have a prepared response. (Sidebar: Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking of every possible response someone may have. Stick to the top two or three at most.) She offered me this advice because she knew I would be working with someone with amazing technical expertise, but very little ability to manage time and whose personal life was a train wreck. She expected he would constantly be asking me to stay late to help him out or assigning me tasks that weren’t my job. While management was working with him to improve these areas, sometimes people don’t change, or don’t change quickly. So I always had a few honest and direct responses–not lies or excuses–ready for him. Worked like a charm. “My work is finished so I’m not staying late tonight, but I’ll pitch in for an hour b/w 10 and 11 tomorrow morning to help you get organized and prioritize your workload.” I use this in my personal life with a handful of difficult family members and it keeps the peace, protects me, and allows for honesty and not excuses that are really lies. “I’d love to host the family for the holiday, but it will be potluck. I will only be making a salad for my contribution, so everyone better bring what they signed up for or we are only having salad!” It’s some of the best professional advice I’ve ever gotten.

    • That’s an exceptional boss – and this is one of the best formulations I’ve ever been introduced to. Thank you, Stephanie! I’m printing this out 🙂

    • Love this. Thank you for sharing.

  • This can work both ways. As the President of a national organization, I’m often the one asking others to do something. I usually start with an e-mail setting up a phone call, and the e-mail says “I’m going to ask you to do something that I think will interest you.” So at least they know what’s going on. Then we have the phone call, and early in the conversation I’ll say “You don’t have to give me an answer on the spot. Take a few days to think about this, and I’ll call you back.” Sometimes I get a straight Yes on the spot (which I think is partly due to asking the right person in the first place), occasionally a straight No. And the answers are mixed when I call back, so this isn’t a formula for getting people to say yes; it’s just a kinder, gentler way of asking someone to give of their time and energy.

    • Another really thoughtful formulation – thank you! It’s truthful, elegant AND enticing.

  • I’ve learned to turn down invitations by politely saying thanks but I can’t, I already have a commitment. And the commitment is spending quality alone time for whatever I need. No one needs to know my real plans or that I just don’t want to go. Took me a while to get here but it feels so good now!

    • Oh, this is so simple and so valuable! Too often I have said yes to invites that felt like a huge burden. You have just handed me a golden key to freedom from unwanted, undesirable invitations. Thank you!

    • I think this approach is so much more adult. If asked to volunteer for something, just tell the person asking “no” so that your intentions are totally clear if you are not going to do it. I’ve been on the other end of “buffer phrases,” and interpreted them as a “no,” and then the other person changes their mind or whatever and wants to be included after you move on and find someone willing to make a definite commitment. Since when is lying and being dishonest admirable? Say what you mean and mean what you say.

  • Boy, I needed to be reminded of this! Thank you!

  • This is so timely and such a great reminder. I used to talk about this with my mom a lot when she was alive. She had a bad habit of saying yes to everything, and then often feeling like it was too much! I would have her practice just saying “no, I will not be able to do that!” I don’t think she ever got the knack of it, she was such a people pleaser, but I’m happy to say that I have been practicing saying “let me think about this” and it is so freeing!!!!

  • The first time I heard the phrase “No is a complete sentence” it was a revelation! It was a little scary to implement, because as women we have been socialized to be sweet and accommodating, but with a little practice it was hugely liberating.

    • If you can’t quite get to “No.” as a complete sentence, try “No, I am not able to do that.” Still too hard? Try “No, I am not able to do that now.”

  • My most used buffer phrase is “That doesn’t work for me”. Often given with a thoughtful pause and “hmmm, . . .”. Very effective

  • That’s also a good answer when someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to! It’s okay to say you need to get back to them rather than bluff your way through some answer because you don’t want to admit you don’t know something (lesson learned for me). Thanks for the reminder of this phrase. I’ll start implementing it more.

    • Omigosh, yes! It’s so relaxing not to have to have all the answers on the instant.

  • I’m not disagreeing with your point; we shouldn’t feel obligated to do everything everyone asks us to do and if it’s difficult to say, ‘Thanks for asking but I can’t,’ then “Let me get back to you’ can work. My issue is with two people what are coming back from a (presumably) peaceful and restful retreat saying no to a young couple with a baby struggling in the extremely limited space available in airline seats to keep the baby and the third seat mate happy. I weigh changing seats and having a slightly less comfortable trip against the difficulties the parents were facing trying to manage bottles, diapers, and squirmy baby without troubling anyone and I come up with something that’s well beyond ‘self-care. The best I can come up with is thoughtless.

    • I was just coming back to this post to say the same thing. The author comes across as selfish and thoughtless. Most of us have done similar things, but perhaps we don’t hold them as examples of how to behave… or maybe we even have a twinge of regret later, as we could have made somebody’s day so much better with only a little inconvenience on our part.

      The more I read these “self-care” articles the more I dislike the entire series.

    • I was thinking the same thing…selfish. We’re all in this together, if you can help someone, you should. Of course one shouldn’t say ‘yes’ to everything, but we should consider the true cost to ourselves.

    • Yes. I was thinking the same thing.

    • I agree with you…(and when my husband and I had to travel with twin infants, we often were forced to sit far apart from each other, each with an infant, on international flights.)

      Having a baby is hard work and the rest of us can help out every now and again.

      About making space– Having twins has enabled me to learn (fast) that it is ok to say no, and also to say that is beyond me or too much for me right now.

      This is a good thing to learn to do. Inevitably, the person insisting that I do more was someone without kids or with a singleton baby rather than twinunderweight sick ones, usually with close family support which we did not have. I finally figured this out. My response to this sort of “you should be able to do more” shaming was to smile and say, “Oh! I just can’t manage that. You must be much more competent than I am.” Then I would walk away while pushing the double stroller or wearing two babies or walking with two toddlers.

      I do believe in getting a break or time off…and that is why I try to help others with infants when I can. It is crazy hard work.

      • “Having a baby is hard work and the rest of us can help out every now and again.” Every now and again implies not always. This was one of those no times. (And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with never helping so long as you’re not hurting, and saying that keeping people in their purchased, adjacent, assigned seats is hurting would be a bit much.)

      • The conversation assumes that the flight attendant was unable to accommodate the family in another row; one doesn’t know why the person never came back. 🙂

        • I don’t think it makes any difference.

  • When we married (in our late 30s and both with careers in full swing) we decided to not commit to anything without “checking our calendar”. It helped us get more comfortable working out things for two instead of one, and it gave us room to discuss if we wanted to do something. The original plan was to do it for the first year, but we’ve never changed from that policy.

    Of course, when I was in high school, my mother taught me that if I did not want to offend, but didn’t want to do something with people I could simply reply, “I have other plans.” Sometimes, my plans were to stay in and relax, or floss the cat’s teeth, but it didn’t sound like I was rejecting that person/group personally. The trick is to never elaborate on your plans and you don’t get into trouble because they are your plans whatever they are.

  • Someone once asked me “If you never say ‘no’, what is your ‘yes’ worth?” My buffer phrase developed soon after – “I’m not sure I can manage that”.

  • “Let me get back to you” obligates you to make an effort to take up the conversation again at some point because if you don’t it turns into a brush off. Maybe, ‘I can’t make that decision right now.’ would be just as easy to say without obligating you to the follow-up.

    • 100%!!! Fantastic refinement; thank you!

  • Whilst I fully agree with self care, it should be balanced between care of self and care of others. We can’t achieve wellbeing in the full sense of the word if it is at someone else’s expense.
    I work as a public health consultant part time and demands on my time always exceed my capacity. I do have a range of buffer phrases around ‘giving it (their problem) some thought’. That gives me time to provide a fully considered response which might range from doing the work for them, to pointing them to other resources.
    This approach spills over into your private life. However, I do sometimes do things that I don’t want to for relative strangers, and consider that I’m repaying the many kindnesses that I’ve been shown over the years by people who have had nothing to gain from their actions.

    • I’ve been thinking about self-care in community lately. Reciprocity is a huge part of that, isn’t it? Good reminder – thank you.

  • When I had small children, and friends also had small children, I found that when they asked me what I was doing on such-and-such day, they really didn’t care what I was doing. They were just trying to see if I could watch their kid/s. So I started responding with “why do you ask?” instead of blurting out that I had no plans, so I had a fair shot at considering whether I wanted to be committed on that day. Now whenever anyone asks what my plans are I ask them why first. It has saved me from many, many commitments I didn’t really want.

  • Once I had a client who would always say, ” Sorry, I can’t make it at that time, I have an appointment. Can you make it later?”, if I asked for a noon appointment. Only later did she tell me that was her exercise time. She needed to treat her excercise time as a regular appointment, otherwise she would always let other things derail her. Her exercise appointment was the same as a doctor’s appointment. She valued herself and her health to put a boundary around it. A smart lady!

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