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:
- Deliver the Headline First
- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes
frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That
might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the
headline first, and then offer the details.
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- Troublesome Terminology
- The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the
most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
- When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble
- When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many
reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
- Preventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness
- When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques
for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently.
When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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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.