Recently the topic of ending conversations came up and so I thought I’d write down a brief guide to good ways to do that in case it’s helpful to someone who hasn’t seen good examples of it.
And just as a preface, if you want to exit from a conversation, don’t give the other person hints that you want to be out of it. You have very little control over how aggressively hints are interpreted, and in the best case people will wonder why you didn’t trust them enough to say what you meant. In general, passive-aggressive leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. And further, if you want a job done, don’t delegate it to someone who may not want it done.
Before I get into specifics, we should first talk about the generalities of the situation, so that the specifics make sense. All conversations have between one and two purposes. Conversations which might be said to have no purpose will generally have the purpose of fulfilling social obligations to interact with people in some circumstances. Common purposes include:
- Wanting human connection (to stave off loneliness)
- Enjoyment of a subject with someone who also enjoys it
- Passing the time
- Communicating information
- Being polite
For the most part, people are in a conversation for one of these reasons. Exiting a conversation in a way that does not offend the other person is primarily a matter of acting consonant with two propositions:
- The other person’s concerns matter
- the reason you are ending the conversation is that something of greater importance than the current state of the conversation has come up
The specifics of this depend on the reason the other person has for being in the conversation. Though one generality is to make sure to smile as you’re ending the conversation. Smiling makes everyone less likely to be offended, as long as your smile is commensurate with the words you’re saying. (For more, I’ve got a whole video about the use of smiling as communication.) Taking them in increasing order of difficult:
If the other person is in the conversation merely to be polite, which typically means something like the two of you are together and it would be rude to act as if the other person isn’t there, exiting the conversation politely is generally as simple as saying that you should do something else and saying it was pleasant to talk with them. (Note: there is no way to politely exit a conversation if you will still be in the situation where it would be impolite to not talk. “I’m going to stand here and ignore you while you stare at my forehead” will always be impolite no matter how you say it.)
Here’s my stop. It was nice talking you, and good luck with [thing person said].
Passing the Time
Related to being polite, passing the time is where conversation isn’t necessary but someone finds it preferable to the alternatives. When only one person is passing the time, this can be unpleasant for the other person but may be done as an act of generosity. If you’re the one passing the time and the other person has things they’d rather be doing, generally the best way out is to apologize, since it implicitly recognizes their generosity.
Well, look at me going on and on. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time but thanks and I’ll let you get back to [whatever they were doing or should be doing].
If the other person was passing the time, then the key is to not make them feel like they were a burden. (Even if they were; odds are very good they’ll realize it on some level even if you say nothing and anything you say will probably over-communicate that message. If a person is constantly doing this to you, greater firmness will be required, but if at all possible escalate slowly.)
Hey, it was good talking to you but unfortunately I’ve got to get to [whatever you should be doing]. See you around!
On the plus side, people generally don’t have emotional investments in communicating information. On the downside, these sorts of conversations can easily get lost in the woods and wander endlessly. The key to ending them is making sure that the other person has all the information that they need and that the conversation doesn’t accidentally become mutual politeness, like the time I and a group of college friends walked to the ATM before getting food together only to stand there and look at each other to see who needed to get cash before eating when none of us did. How to get out of this conversation will depend on whether you are the one who needs information or the one who is giving it. If you’re the one giving it (at a suitable time when you’re not interrupting a thought):
OK. Well, does that answer your question / give you what you need?
If they say no, then go back to trying to answer the question. If they say yes:
OK, great! I’m glad I could help, and if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.
If you’re the one who was asking the questions, how you exit the conversation will depend on whether you got the information you were after. If you did, this is easy:
Hey, well, that answered all the questions I have. Thanks you very much for all the information.
(At this point the other person may take a moment to point you to additional sources of information, such as books, websites, etc. Actually write this stuff down if you can because in the worst case a little effort here will make the other person feel better, and in the more common case you won’t have to ask for the recommendation all over again.)
If you didn’t get the information and it’s clear that you’re not going to, then it’s best to be a little vague, but of course within the bounds of honesty:
Hey, well, thanks. That gives me a sense of where to get started. I need to do some more research to come up with more focused, better-formed questions. But this gives me a good start for doing that.
On the real extreme end of having gotten nothing at all out of it, just thank them for their time. They’ll probably be more glad than you are to get out of the conversation. If they ask if that answered your question, I suggest discovering your inner skeptic. What can you really be certain of, anyway?
I’m not really sure, actually. I’ve got to think about it and figure out what it is I’m even trying to ask.
Possibly. I need some time to think it over and turn things over in my head and see if it makes sense or if there’s stuff I still need to ask about.
If it was such a cluster-fudge that you got information that was contradictory or you know to be wrong, stick to what’s true:
Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Enjoyment of a Subject With Someone Who Also Enjoys It
This is the classic conversation between friends, at least when it’s going well. If this is actually going on with a friend, then it will probably be hard to go wrong, unless you have to leave early. With friends, openness is generally the best approach, so if something came up that means you have to run, say what it is.
Oh shoot. I promised my [blood relation] I’d [do something] now, so I’ve got to run. I need a few more hours in a day. Will you be available [time/date]?
This both gives them an entirely believable reason why you had to leave so quickly, and by making reference to when you next talk to them, communicates unambiguously that you want to continue the subject, or at least keep talking with them.
If the conversation has come to a natural close, then mostly all that’s needed is an acknowledgement that you enjoyed the conversation. Everyone has things to do in order to stay healthy and under shelter, so no real excuse is needed, though there’s no harm in providing one, either.
Well, it’s been great talking with you but I have to get going.
Or with an excuse:
Well, it’s been great talking with you, but unfortunately I need to [practical activity, such as eating or going to sleep].
If the conversation was not really symmetric, where the other person was far more into than you were, the excuse is more important. And to limit such conversations without giving offense, try to pick an early but not abrupt point to consistently end them; the other person’s sense of you being as into it as them will depend heavily on how participatory you are, so limiting your participation will naturally encourage them to look elsewhere while still thinking of you as meaning well toward them. (I’m assuming that you do; if you dislike someone and wish them ill, you don’t need advice on how to communicate that. Everyone knows how to shriek obscenities and throw things.)
Wanting Human Connection
This may be the hardest one since ending a conversation is inherently—if temporarily—severing the human connection which the other person is seeking. Accordingly, there isn’t a great way of doing this. There are actually two bad outcomes you need to try to avoid:
- Making the person feel unwanted or like they’re a burden
- Making the person think that you have more time to give them than you do, so that they are set up for disappointment when you don’t talk to them again as soon or for as long as they were expecting.
As is probably obvious, navigating this isn’t easy, since the easiest way to avoid one is to run straight into the other. The best bet is to express happiness that you conversed and to be very realistic about the next time you’ll talk. It is far, far better to over-estimate how long it will be than to under-estimate it. People are always delighted to hear from someone earlier than expected but feel quite bad about not hearing from someone when they expect to. This is of course difficult because the further off an estimate one gives, the less happy the other person will be to hear it. This is what tends to push us into giving under-estimates and disappointing them.
If this is a relative or other close person, it’s ideal to establish some sort of regularity. Calling every Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening or whatever. The regularity both gives the person something to look forward to and eases the ending of the conversation because less will feel like it’s at stake. If they feel like they can rely on hearing from you again, it will be painful—but not nearly as painful—to say goodbye.
That said, the key is to strike a balance between being cheerful and acknowledging that the ending of the conversation is not a happy thing for the other person. Much of this is in the tone of voice, of course; something gentle with a note of sadness among a generally positive sound is the goal. If you can stick to a schedule, something like this:
Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of the [realistic time period until you talk again]. I look forward to talking with you [tomorrow/next week/etc]. [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]
If you can’t stick to a schedule, then something like this:
Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of your day. I look forward to talking with you again. [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]