We’ve done several articles on the Art of Manliness covering the wonderful art of conversation, from its dos and donts, to how to make small talk, to avoiding the dreaded plague ofconversational narcissism.
A comment each of those posts invariably received was, “This is great. But, uh, how do you enda conversation?”
I get it. Warm, stimulating conversation can be one of the greatest satisfactions in life. But, unfortunately not all conversations are created equal. Some are more pain than pleasure. Maybe you strenuously avoid conversational narcissism yourself, but you’re stuck talking to someone who’s a master practitioner of the conversation-as-monologue method. Perhaps you’re always getting caught by an annoying co-worker or neighbor who bends your ear complaining about the new prices in the cafeteria or waxes poetic on the joys of owning a Kia. It may not be that you don’t like the person or enjoy his conversation, either. You may go to a party or networking event hoping to meet a lot of different folks but find yourself pinned down for a long time by one fellow. He’s likable enough, but you spy people having a good time in other parts of the house and wonder what you’re missing out on. Or you may simply genuinely have something you need to do, and you just don’t have time for the conversation at the moment, even though you wish you did.
We would all be well-served by striving to engage in more face-to-face conversations, taking the time to listen to others, and doing our best to add to the back and forth of our daily interactions. But there are times when the conversation is truly going nowhere and/or we need to go somewhere. So yes, the question naturally arises…how do you end a conversation without making it overly awkward or offending the other person?
It isn’t easy. Approaching someone might make you nervous but it consists entirely of positive behaviors – coming over, smiling, starting some small talk. Exiting a conversation, on the other hand, is made up of negative behaviors – stopping talking, backing away. No matter how amiable your intentions, the person can feel like you’re rejecting them. This isn’t a big deal if you’re never going to see the person again, but if you will, you don’t want things to be awkward (and you truly don’t ever know for sure whether you’ll meet someone again, so why burn any bridges?). And if the person is actually someone you do want to see in the future, but you just don’t have the time to talk to them at length at the moment, you want to solidify your connection and leave things on a positive note.
There’s no magic formula for making an exit that guarantees the person won’t take offense. But there are several things you can do to disengage in the smoothest, most dignified way possible – minimizing the awkwardness, sparing the person’s feelings as much as you can, and shoring up your rapport with someone you want to re-connect with later.
These tips may be combined or used separately depending on your situation. Many apply both to face-to-face conversations and those conducted over the phone.
Have a clear purpose/agenda in mind. Whether you’re going to a party, a networking event, or simply the bathroom, have an agenda in mind for what you want to accomplish. Do you want to meet a lovely lady? Make a connection with someone who can help you re-design your website? Empty your throbbing bladder? Whenever you’re trapped in a conversation, you’re torn between potentially hurting someone’s feelings by moving on and wanting to do something else. Having a clear purpose in mind for what you want to get done gives you the motivation to choose the latter. It also gives you some easy-to-create exit lines, as we’ll discuss below.
Wait for a lull in the conversation. “Well.” “Okay.” “Anyway.” “So.” Such words emerge when a conversation has momentarily stalled. They’re turning points where either a new topic can be introduced, or the conversation may draw to a close. As such, they’re the perfect opportunity to begin to disengage. The speaker will say “So,” with an upward lilt in the voice, hopeful of the continuation of the conversation. You answer with a tone of more downbeat finality, “So.” And then you quickly transition into your exit line. “So, listen, it’s been great catching up with you…”
Bring the conversation around to the reason you connected in the first place. When possible, this makes for a smooth ending. Did the conversation start by you asking someone for their recommendation for a class to take? End with, “Well, I appreciate the tip. I’ll definitely try to get into that class during enrollment.” Did it start by someone asking you to take care of a problem at work? Close things out with, “So I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I’ll definitely send Jim an email this afternoon to figure out what’s going on.”
Use an exit line. This is where having an agenda as outlined above really helps. When it comes to what kind of exit line to use, first, be honest. Fabricating excuses is tempting, but it can come off as dishonest in the moment and lead to more trouble later if the truth gets out. Second, put the emphasis on what it is that you need to accomplish. This makes your exit seem less like a judgment of the other person – it’s not about them, there’s just something you need to do. Here are some examples of exit lines (likely prefaced by a, “Well…”):
- I need to get a seat/use the bathroom before the movie starts.
- I have a question I wanted to ask the speaker before he leaves.
- I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got a deadline I need to meet before noon.
- I want to make sure to say hello to everyone here.
- I made it a goal to meet three new people tonight.
- I’ve got to go inside and start getting dinner ready for the kiddos.
- I’m hoping to see the Romantic art exhibit before it closes.
If you initiated the conversation, but now want out, and there isn’t something you’re hoping to do, try a line that brings closure to a conversation by implying you’ve crossed something off your checklist (“just” is your friend here):
- So, just wanted to make sure everything was okay.
- Well, just wanted to see how the new job was going.
If the other person initiated the conversation, and did so to ask for help/advice, conclude things by asking:
- Is there anything else I can help you with?
- Is there anything else you needed?
For a situation where the above exit lines aren’t appropriate, simply wait for a conversational turning point and say something like:
- Well, it was great catching up with you.
- Anyway, it was fun to see you again.
Using the past tense in such lines tells the other person that the conversation has come to a close.
Another type of all-purpose exit line is something like:
- Anyway, I don’t want to monopolize all your time.
- Well, I don’t want to keep you from your work.
I’d only use the above lines, however, when your conversation partner does indeed look like they want out, or you simply can’t think of anything to say. They can come off as a bit condescending – after all, if they really minded you taking their time, aren’t they capable of saying so themselves? You also run the risk of them jumping in with, “Oh no, I don’t mind at all!” and the conversation continuing on. Finally, generally when you hear such lines from someone, they clearly register as a getaway attempt.