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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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

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Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
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