Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 19;   May 7, 2008: Ending Conversations

Ending Conversations

by

At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.

Face-to-face, by telephone, in hallways, in parking lots or lobbies, or over video links, ending conversations is rarely easy. For instance, when a subordinate wants to talk, and emotions are high, and you must suddenly end the conversation because of another commitment, what then? How can you avoid damaging the relationship?

Autumn colors on Clopper Lake

Autumn colors on Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, Maryland. Nature provides many examples of ending conversations. In autumn in temperate forests, the end of the summer conversation comes with clarity and firmness: we never question its coming and we know that appeals for extensions of summer are in vain. Yet we look forward to autumn, and its glorious colors make the ending of summer thrilling and perhaps even welcome. An effective ending to a conversation might never meet that standard, but it can be firm and clear, and it can engender hope and understanding. If an ending does that, it might not be welcome, but it can be accepted without rancor. Photograph by Eileen McVey, NESDIS. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Excuse me, my plants need watering," probably won't work. It fails, because:

  • The conflicting commitment (watering plants) isn't urgent enough to justify an abrupt end. Your partner will probably feel insulted.
  • The conflicting commitment probably wasn't set up in advance, which makes it feel as if it were invented on the fly. People rarely write "water plants" in their schedules. To-do lists, yes. Schedules, no.
  • The tactic lacks a commitment, or even an opening, for continuing. That closes out hope, which might convey a message that you don't care.
  • The tactic doesn't seal the conversation. Your partner might very innocently say, "Oh, no problem, I'll come along."

And so we see that effective tactics for ending conversations have some common attributes. Here are some important ones.

Conflicting commitments must be scheduled and immediate
If you have a conflicting commitment, it should be one that was scheduled in advance. "I'm totally buried" is probably the only exception to this requirement.
Preclude continuation
The tactic should inhibit your partner from accompanying you as you exit the scene. If your partner can accompany you, some conversations will continue.
Preserve hope
Respect your partner's need to continue the conversation, either with you or with someone more appropriate. Offer another time or contact, or make a commitment to do so.
Respect true emergencies
Respect your partner's need
to continue the conversation,
either with you or with
someone more appropriate
In true emergencies, including threats to safety, deferring the conversation is appropriate only if continuation presents an even greater threat. Attend first to the emergency with the higher priority.
Respect ethics
Sometimes ethical or legal considerations preclude private conversation about certain topics — or any conversation at all. Acknowledge that and offer to work to find a suitable replacement for yourself.
Respect power
It's probably wise to give a free pass to anyone with organizational power superior to yours.

With all this in mind, a more effective closer for our example above might have been one of these:

  • I want to continue, but I have a meeting. Can we work out a time for tomorrow or the next day? Send me a note or leave word.
  • I know this is important, but I really can't talk with you about this. Have you talked to Wallace about it? Should I give her a heads up that you'll be calling?

I know my articles don't always address the precise situation you're facing, but I'm out of space and I must stop. Send me a note and I'll do my best to make a more relevant suggestion. Go to top Top  Next issue: Animosity Patterns  Next Issue

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

What's in it for him?Beyond WIIFM
Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
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Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
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Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
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In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding, toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
The first page of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common SensePublish an Internal Newsletter
If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

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