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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

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Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.
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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.
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Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

C. Northcote Parkinson in 1961Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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