This simple one-liner has been pivotal for me over the past year, upon being hired by IMPACT last July and participating in countless classes as part of my coach training. All of our self-defense courses highlight verbal skills in addition to physical skills, and we offer a variety of specialized programs related to assertiveness and boundary-setting, de-escalation, healthy relationships and sex education. 

In one of our self-defense role-play demos, the lead instructor pretends to wait for a train all alone when a stranger approaches asking for directions. In real life, we may know the directions and want to help, or maybe we don’t actually know. For the sake of the demo, we are saying the instructor does not know and responds, “Sorry, I can’t help you. But there’s a man in the booth over there who can.” Instead of going elsewhere to find the directions they supposedly need, the stranger continues trying to rope the instructor into conversation by asking personal questions like, “So you’re not from around here? Where do you live?” 

At this moment, the instructor demonstrates disengaging from a conversation they don’t want to be in, with a response of, “no offense, I don’t feel like talking.” This boundary is further emphasized by their body language and facial expression.

In real life, this could end an uncomfortable interaction, or the stranger could persist. And if they do persist, we get important information about that stranger.


To emphasize this point, we ask students to think about their own lived experience: “If you tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and they said ‘no offense, I don’t feel like talking,’ what would you do?” The class always replies in unison: “I would leave them alone.” Right! That’s the social norm. When someone says they don’t want to talk, we leave them alone. When anyone – a stranger or a person we know – attempts to push past a clear boundary, they are the one breaking the social contract, not us. 

Yet so many of us, instructors and students alike, still fight against internal beliefs that we are somehow obligated to participate in a conversation we don’t want to have, or answer personal questions even if we feel uncomfortable. Women in particular receive messages growing up that it is our job to care for other people’s feelings above our own, and that “being polite” is more important than our own comfort or safety. In the train station scenario, for example, we might feel our brains trying to argue or rationalize:

“Well, they’re not being rude, I should just answer. . .”

“Well, the question isn’t TOO personal, I should just respond. . .”

“I don’t want HIM to feel offended or upset, I should just chit chat. . .”

“If I set a boundary, that would be rude of me. . .”

“I’ve already started the conversation, now I don’t know how to get out of it. . .”

For me, any act of self-advocacy is preceded by an extensive personal pep-talk reminding myself that I am allowed to change my mind, I am allowed to set a boundary, I am allowed to state my feelings or needs, and I am worth defending. Further, I remind myself that I can set a boundary or state a need calmly and clearly (i.e. assertively) right away, without having to wait until I’ve sat in my discomfort for so long that I eventually explode at a stranger, friend or colleague. 

We remind students: You do not have to participate in anything you don’t want to. That includes a physical interaction or a conversation – even if it’s already begun.

This core truth can support young people as they begin to navigate dating and sex, or as they grow to face challenges within their friendships and family units. It can support professionals as they swim through the power dynamics of office politics. It can support the person waiting alone for a train.

Nowadays, when I feel that familiar pull of obligation to answer the personal questions of a “harmless stranger” on a train, for example, I pause and ground myself. A small piece of me is strengthened and healed every time that stranger leaves me alone when I calmly say, “no offense, I don’t feel like talking.”