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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Virtual Communications: III
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part
III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right,
or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some
thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- How to Eliminate Meetings
- Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended
many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could
change our lives.
- The Problem of Work Life Balance
- When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term
itself is part of the problem.
- Critical Communications
- From time to time, we're responsible for sending critical communications — essential messages
that the intended recipients must have. It's a heavy responsibility that can bear some risk. A strategy
for managing those risks involves three messages.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.