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?
"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. Top Next Issue
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The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
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- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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