How to End a Conversation

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 6, 2013 · 39 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette

exitconvo

We’ve done several articles on the Art of Manliness covering the wonderful art of conversation, from its dos and donts, to how to make small talk, to avoiding the dreaded plague of conversational narcissism.

A comment each of those posts invariably received was, “This is great. But, uh, how do you end a conversation?”

I get it. Warm, stimulating conversation can be one of the greatest satisfactions in life. But, unfortunately not all conversations are created equal. Some are more pain than pleasure. Maybe you strenuously avoid conversational narcissism yourself, but you’re stuck talking to someone who’s a master practitioner of the conversation-as-monologue method. Perhaps you’re always getting caught by an annoying co-worker or neighbor who bends your ear complaining about the new prices in the cafeteria or waxes poetic on the joys of owning a Kia. It may not be that you don’t like the person or enjoy his conversation, either. You may go to a party or networking event hoping to meet a lot of different folks but find yourself pinned down for a long time by one fellow. He’s likable enough, but you spy people having a good time in other parts of the house and wonder what you’re missing out on. Or you may simply genuinely have something you need to do, and you just don’t have time for the conversation at the moment, even though you wish you did.

We would all be well-served by striving to engage in more face-to-face conversations, taking the time to listen to others, and doing our best to add to the back and forth of our daily interactions. But there are times when the conversation is truly going nowhere and/or we need to go somewhere. So yes, the question naturally arises…how do you end a conversation without making it overly awkward or offending the other person?

It isn’t easy. Approaching someone might make you nervous but it consists entirely of positive behaviors – coming over, smiling, starting some small talk. Exiting a conversation, on the other hand, is made up of negative behaviors – stopping talking, backing away. No matter how amiable your intentions, the person can feel like you’re rejecting them. This isn’t a big deal if you’re never going to see the person again, but if you will, you don’t want things to be awkward (and you truly don’t ever know for sure whether you’ll meet someone again, so why burn any bridges?). And if the person is actually someone you do want to see in the future, but you just don’t have the time to talk to them at length at the moment, you want to solidify your connection and leave things on a positive note.

There’s no magic formula for making an exit that guarantees the person won’t take offense. But there are several things you can do to disengage in the smoothest, most dignified way possible – minimizing the awkwardness, sparing the person’s feelings as much as you can, and shoring up your rapport with someone you want to re-connect with later.

These tips may be combined or used separately depending on your situation. Many apply both to face-to-face conversations and those conducted over the phone.

Have a clear purpose/agenda in mind. Whether you’re going to a party, a networking event, or simply the bathroom, have an agenda in mind for what you want to accomplish. Do you want to meet a lovely lady? Make a connection with someone who can help you re-design your website? Empty your throbbing bladder? Whenever you’re trapped in a conversation, you’re torn between potentially hurting someone’s feelings by moving on and wanting to do something else. Having a clear purpose in mind for what you want to get done gives you the motivation to choose the latter. It also gives you some easy-to-create exit lines, as we’ll discuss below.

Wait for a lull in the conversation. “Well.” “Okay.” “Anyway.” “So.” Such words emerge when a conversation has momentarily stalled. They’re turning points where either a new topic can be introduced, or the conversation may draw to a close. As such, they’re the perfect opportunity to begin to disengage. The speaker will say “So,” with an upward lilt in the voice, hopeful of the continuation of the conversation. You answer with a tone of more downbeat finality, “So.” And then you quickly transition into your exit line. “So, listen, it’s been great catching up with you…”

Bring the conversation around to the reason you connected in the first place. When possible, this makes for a smooth ending. Did the conversation start by you asking someone for their recommendation for a class to take? End with, “Well, I appreciate the tip. I’ll definitely try to get into that class during enrollment.” Did it start by someone asking you to take care of a problem at work? Close things out with, “So I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I’ll definitely send Jim an email this afternoon to figure out what’s going on.”

Use an exit line. This is where having an agenda as outlined above really helps. When it comes to what kind of exit line to use, first, be honest. Fabricating excuses is tempting, but it can come off as dishonest in the moment and lead to more trouble later if the truth gets out. Second, put the emphasis on what it is that you need to accomplish. This makes your exit seem less like a judgment of the other person – it’s not about them, there’s just something you need to do. Here are some examples of exit lines (likely prefaced by a, “Well…”):

  • I need to get a seat/use the bathroom before the movie starts.
  • I have a question I wanted to ask the speaker before he leaves.
  • I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got a deadline I need to meet before noon.
  • I want to make sure to say hello to everyone here.
  • I made it a goal to meet three new people tonight.
  • I’ve got to go inside and start getting dinner ready for the kiddos.
  • I’m hoping to see the Romantic art exhibit before it closes.

If you initiated the conversation, but now want out, and there isn’t something you’re hoping to do, try a line that brings closure to a conversation by implying you’ve crossed something off your checklist (“just” is your friend here):

  • So, just wanted to make sure everything was okay.
  • Well, just wanted to see how the new job was going.

If the other person initiated the conversation, and did so to ask for help/advice, conclude things by asking:

  • Is there anything else I can help you with?
  • Is there anything else you needed?

For a situation where the above exit lines aren’t appropriate, simply wait for a conversational turning point and say something like:

  • Well, it was great catching up with you.
  • Anyway, it was fun to see you again.

Using the past tense in such lines tells the other person that the conversation has come to a close.

Another type of all-purpose exit line is something like:

  • Anyway, I don’t want to monopolize all your time.
  • Well, I don’t want to keep you from your work.

I’d only use the above lines, however, when your conversation partner does indeed look like they want out, or you simply can’t think of anything to say. They can come off as a bit condescending – after all, if they really minded you taking their time, aren’t they capable of saying so themselves? You also run the risk of them jumping in with, “Oh no, I don’t mind at all!” and the conversation continuing on. Finally, generally when you hear such lines from someone, they clearly register as a getaway attempt.

Introduce the person to someone else. If one of the above exit lines won’t do the trick, try introducing your conversation partner to someone else. “It was great talking to you, Paul. There’s someone else I’d like you to meet. My friend Sam over here is also in software design.” Walk your conversation partner over or flag down your friend. Then say, “I’ll let you guys talk.” Now you should only employ this method if you genuinely think the two would mutually enjoy the connection. You don’t want to pawn an insanely boring, or simply insane person on someone else just so you can wriggle away.

Get the person to introduce you to someone else. This is a good method for networking-type events. Ask the person if they know someone that can help you with a problem:

  • Do you know anyone who’s dealt with the guys who run ___?
  • I’m really interested in ___? Do you know anyone with experience in that?
  • I’ve been wondering how to get started with ___? Do you know anyone who’s done that?
  • Can you suggest anyone who could help with ___?

If your conversation partner does know someone who can help with your request, they’re likely to take you over to meet him or her. If they don’t, you can simply say, “Well, I really need to find someone who can help me with this. I’m going to ask some more people.” Either way you’ve just smoothly extricated yourself from the conversation.

Invite the person to do something with you. This allows you to make a possible exit/continue on to what you wanted to do without your conversation partner feeling abandoned, and allowing them to still feel wanted. Say something like:

  • I’m going to try to meet the speaker. Do you want to come?
  • I’m ready for another drink. Want to go over to the bar with me?
  • I want to check out the Cezanne exhibit. Do you want to go see it?
  • Let’s check out the buffet.
  • My friend Mike just walked in. Let’s go say hi to him.

If the person declines your invitation, well, you’ve successfully ended your conversation with them. If they accept the invitation, you can hook up with some more people who can liven things up, and you can keep after whatever your original agenda/purpose was before you got pulled into the conversation.

Bow out when others join the conversation. This is a standard, tried and true method. Once other people join the circle of conversation and things get going between your old partner(s), you slip away.

End with appreciation. Whichever of the above methods you employ to exit a conversation, end the interaction with appreciation. Small talk expert Debra Fine calls appreciation “a compliment with closure.” Recap the conversation in a positive way, thank the person for giving their time, sharing their expertise, or simply being fun to get to know, and be sincere – only say it if you mean it. Use their name too – it builds a last bit of rapport (and it helps solidify their name in your memory if you just met them). This kind of goodbye ensures you go out on a high note, with warm feelings between you.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on going to law school, Sean. It really helped me think though my decision
  • It was wonderful catching up with you, Sarah. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.
  • I appreciated getting your thoughts on the issue, Dan. I’ll take care of it as soon as possible.

If you didn’t appreciate the conversation, and don’t want to encourage the person to strike up another one next time they see you, just end with one of the exit lines above, and then a simple, “Okay, take care,” or something similar.

Smile/shake hands/make plans. Before you go, give them a smile and shake their hand. Like using their name, it adds an element of personal warmth and rapport-building to your exit. Once you shake hands, start to physically back away to avoid the possibility of the conversation springing back to life.

If you’d like to see the person again, tell them so, and ask for a phone number/email/business card. If you feel like things went well, despite your need to bounce early, make specific plans for when you’ll talk/meet up again.

Purposefully head to your destination. Fine argues that “The cardinal rule of the exit is that when you depart, you do what you said you were going to do.” If you say you need to find a seat before class starts, but then walk ten feet, and start talking to someone else, your jilted conversation partner is going to know you lied and dumped them. Likewise, if you say you need to go talk to someone else, but then she sees you wandering aimlessly through the party looking lost, she’s going to feel hurt. Our eyes are attracted to movement – people will notice. Go with deliberate purpose to do what you said you needed to do.

If all else fails, you can always make like the writer George Plimpton, who always carried around two drinks at events. If he found himself stuck in an unwanted conversation, he’d politely extricate himself by saying he needed to deliver the other drink!

At the end of the day, employing the above methods can help you avoid awkwardness and hurt feelings, and strengthen a connection you hope to revisit at another time. But if being polite doesn’t work, sometimes you just need to be assertive, bid the person good day, and turn heel. You wouldn’t let someone stand there and pick your pockets, would you? Time is worth far more than money. Don’t let people rob you of it.

So, anyway, it’s been nice talking to you.

________________

Sources:

The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine

The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth

Small Talk, Big Results by Diane Windingland

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mitch Cup-Check March 6, 2013 at 5:56 pm

A good ” whats the captial of Thailand?” always works as well

2 samir rahaman March 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm

I liked the George Plimpton style exit. I am awesome

3 Nick P. March 6, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Using one of the mentioned lines and offering a handshake afterwards can help solidify the close of the conversation and give a touch of manly class to the parting.

4 Steve March 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Had a college interview today. I could have used this article about four hours ago. I left the room sounding like a moron.

5 Mandino March 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Bangkok. Capital of Singapore?

6 Pat March 6, 2013 at 7:33 pm

It is also a good idea to remember these things when speaking with subordinates as well. Too often I notice bosses dismissing those who come to speak to them like a general would a private. This is not cool. Remember manager does not equal ruler. Those below you can often be the biggest asset you have.

7 Robert March 6, 2013 at 7:56 pm

How about a simple, “Would you please excuse me?” as you turn an leave…no one’s business if I’m going to the loo or just tired of listening.

8 Kenny March 6, 2013 at 7:57 pm

How about a spin on the “Irish Goodbye?” Just turn around and leave without saying anything.

9 digital_dreamer March 6, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Awesome article and great information.

As someone who was born with severe hearing loss, the art of conversation is something I pick up via reading articles like this, not through the usual channels most others learn it from – actual conversation experience.

MAJ

10 Joe March 6, 2013 at 9:00 pm

When thinking about an exit strategy, it would be a good idea to ask yourself “how would I feel if somebody said this to me?” And who knows, maybe the other person is trying to think of a graceful way to end the conversation with you too?

11 Tim March 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm

This is a fascinating topic to me because there is a woman at work who does not seem to understand personal space or social graces. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing (she’s a Russian emigre), or perhaps she falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. But she will quite often barge into someone’s office and carry a conversation past the point of the uncomfortable silence, and doesn’t seem to understand normal cues that the discussion is at an end. It’s horribly uncomfortable when you have to almost rudely ask her to leave, or make up some excuse to walk away from your own desk, just so that she understands that you’re done talking to her. I (and other co-workers) don’t want to intentionally be mean or rude to her, but most times if you don’t do one of those two things, she will simply stand there and look at you. She means well, I’m sure, but that combined with some other strange mannerisms makes her very creepy.

12 JR March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

I had an event this past evening where I met up with a lot of old friends, some really old acquaintances and close friends as well. Most conversations were great and since I was working the event I was kept mostly busy until after, where I had a really awkward conversation with someone I met over 5 years ago. These tips are great and are a definite help in smoothing out my exits! Thanks for this post.

13 Hal March 7, 2013 at 6:05 am

This is a sensitive issue. If you happen to be on the receiving end, knowing you are getting the brush off you may never again speak to that person. There is a fine line between what is too much talk and simply being impatient.
I think this is especially true in these days of social media and the Internet in general. We are conditioned to do everything as quickly as possible. If you don’t get what you want in seconds, then quit and go somewhere else. This is sad.
Obviously, some people talk too much, and sometimes there is a need to end the conversation. If you do not intend to break off a relationship with someone, better to use a little caution when employing a departure technique. Unless they happen to be social idiots they will see what you are doing and resent it.
On the other hand, this a a great way to get someone out of your life forever.

14 Henry March 7, 2013 at 7:50 am

This article is awesome and the tips are definitely worth holding on to. One trick I like to use is to break the pattern of conversation and interject exit language. For instance:

Verbal Kidnapper: wahn wahn wahn wahn wahn
You: I’m sorry what was that?
VK: Oh I said my son got his 4th speeding ticket last night.
You: That’s rough. Anyway, Linda, I need to go [do something that doesn't involve standing here talking to you].

Or

Verbal Kidnapper: wahn wahn wahn wahn wahn
You: Wait, I’m sorry. What time do you have?
VK: Oh, it’s 8:36 and…
Y: Aw man, I told Tom I was [going to do something that doesn't involve standing here talking to you] so I’ll catch up with you in a minute.

You stop their line of talking and you give yourself space and opportunity to emancipate yourself from verbal kidnapping. I use it all the time- try it out!

15 Glenn March 7, 2013 at 11:53 am

Best exit line of all time:

“I’ve got to return some video tapes”.

16 Josh March 7, 2013 at 11:56 am
17 William March 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Great article. I work at a church and often find myself in conversations with people that will talk your ear off. I will use the “I need to talk to so-and-so before Youth Fellowship tonight” line and it usually gets me free.

The worst is some of the elderly that you know don’t have anyone to talk to. They will latch onto a conversation and keep it going for as long as possible just to have the interaction. We church staff actually know which ones will talk awhile and will go rescue fellow staff and church goers who are stuck. It sounds rude, but sometimes the best bet is to have a wing-man.

18 Jean March 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thing is, if a guy says “I’m hoping to see the Romantic art exhibit before it closes,” a lot of women wouldn’t be willing to let it end there.

19 Mike Anderson March 8, 2013 at 7:41 am

“Well, one of us has to get back to work.”

20 Ian March 8, 2013 at 9:10 am

I think my favorite is still OK THANKS BYE!

21 Emily March 8, 2013 at 11:58 am

Hah – this article should be called “How to End a Conversation Politely” or we’d ALL be doing the Irish Goodbye (comment #8)! It’s mind-boggling how many people don’t have a firm grasp of basic conversation etiquette.

22 Marc March 8, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Thanks! That was very helpful, as I struggle with this all the time as people drone on and on and on . . . and seemingly I am always the person these people approach. I am going to have to memorize those exit lines!

23 kammes March 8, 2013 at 11:34 pm

“Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom”, is classic escape. Also, what’s up with people talking to others while they’re using urinals? That is a conversation location I can do without.

24 LeRainDrop March 8, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Thank you for these tips! It’s amazing how hard I find it to end conversations sometimes, usually when it’s with someone I don’t know all that well and we’re in a setting where we are supposed to be networking. Strangely, I find this difficultly even when BOTH of us seem to want out of the conversation, but just don’t know how to do it without feeling awkward.

25 P.M.Lawrence March 9, 2013 at 2:38 am

There’s also the method used in the early nineteenth century by the famous French diplomat, Talleyrand. At a formal occasion, someone once asked him how he got away from an unwanted conversation.

“It’s easy”, he replied, “I have arranged a secret signal to the servants to get one of them to come over and tell me that the Emperor wishes to see me – and then it is clearly my duty to leave”.

Just then, a servant came and told Talleyrand that the Emperor wished to see him and he went, leaving the other person ever after unsure whether he had just had that trick played on him.

26 Mike in Tokyo Rogers March 9, 2013 at 3:03 am

This always works: “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got to go sit in the lobby and wait for the limo.”

27 Brian March 9, 2013 at 8:19 pm

I always say towards the end of a conversation, “Well, I’m going to make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here… It was nice catching up with you.”

28 ImOnlyHuman March 10, 2013 at 6:55 am

Well, no wonder so many people are so quiet and don’t bother with conversations anymore. There are so many quotes about people proving stupidity by speaking, and now there is a formula to get away from people that are speaking. All some people seem to think about anymore is how to get away; unless they think they can get something from the person they are speaking with (job, money, date, ride, etc.). Some people try to ask others about themselves but only receive one word answers; then the other person accuses the other of having a monologue. How does one have a two sided conversation with someone that can sum 20 years up into 1 minute when asked “So, what have you been up to for the last 20 years?” Also, if someone doesn’t really want to know what the other person has been up to, don’t ask. Some people try to give more than one word answers in order to advance the conversation. If some people don’t have time for conversation, perhaps they shouldn’t start one. So many topics are out of bounds, and long silence is uncomfortable for some, so some people talk to make interaction comfortable. What is so ironic is that so many people seem to think they are perfect and flawless, and that they have mastered the art of communication, and it is everyone else that is not worth the time of having a conversation with. No wonder technology so easily took over face to face interactions. Who wants to have a conversation with someone that is only thinking of ways to get away, or with someone that is judging them and their every word? Some people make conversation very difficult and then have nerve to blame the other person and say “I just had to get away from so and so.” Perhaps if people became less judgmental and more open, they might end up with more friends; some of which may be true friends. Perhaps someone can tell me why the wealthy and/or famous/powerful don’t ever seem to have trouble finding people to have a conversation with. Are the wealthy just really nice, interesting people that have mastered the art of conversation, or are there other reasons people flock to them and tolerate their conversation?

29 ImOnlyHuman March 10, 2013 at 7:10 am

William (comment #17),

Perhaps there is an opportunity presenting itself? Perhaps social gatherings that target the elderly would be beneficial? Also, an outreach where people talk and interact with the elderly on specific days may be nice? The elderly are full of wisdom that just might benefit this generation.

30 Doug March 11, 2013 at 8:32 pm

I’d avoid the “I made it a goal to meet three new people tonight” exit strategy, it is bound to get that person feeling “used” and they’re far more likely to then tell others of how poorly they felt.

31 Curtis March 12, 2013 at 5:06 am

This was extremely helpful. As a socially awkward and unaware geek, who associates with likesuch geeks, it’s not unusual for a conversation to end with someone abruptly walking off, or turning to talk to someone else. The good part is that it’s common enough that it is not considered especially rude; the bad part is that we don’t develop the necessary skills for communicating with ‘normal’ people.

32 Roberto March 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm

The part where it says “introduce the person to someone else” made me laugh! pass the burden to someone else! But I understand what was intended. Great post!

33 Alik March 24, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Or just be as annoying as the person your talking to, so they break off the conversation first. Then if you do happen to run into them again it will be a lot easier to leave the second time.

34 Michael April 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm

When in doubt, embrace the awkwardness! A real man can take awkwardness and smooth sail it into a suave exit.

35 anon June 17, 2013 at 9:28 pm

The original article is useful, but you really could much better address how to redirect a conversation. These are all well and good for a party or coworker, but what about relatives who are staying in your home that you can’t escape from and with whom you need to maintain a reasonable level of decorum for a few days?

36 Alex November 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I’d like to hear more about the “making plans” suggestion. All the time, people say to me, “We should get drinks some time!” when we part ways, and I always agree. I generally assume if they’re an acquaintance that this is just a social grace and doesn’t really mean they’d like to spend more time with me. But at the same time, on my end it’s often sincere. And if they really didn’t like me much they wouldn’t have invited me to their party anyway. I’d just like to know to what extent this is just a pleasantry and to what extent it’s appropriate to follow up. Ordinarily, my approach would be to reciprocate their invitation by inviting them to my own party or to go out with a group, but my personal circumstances don’t allow me to do those things very much anymore.

37 John December 25, 2013 at 6:02 pm

So any ideas on politely ending conversations when you are tied to a position. I do gigs at pubs and sometimes patrons can go on and on, and they don’t take the hints like me stuffing around with my gear that the conversation isn’t working for me. Toilet breaks and stuff work I guess, but any ideas would be great! Thanks

38 GC January 26, 2014 at 9:18 am

well all I can think of is : blow it out your ass!

39 kiamo March 5, 2014 at 9:32 am

hehe this was fun to read. Full of good insight. =)

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