Exiting a Conversation Gracefully
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Last week, my husband Eric was caught in the crosshairs of an overzealous museum curator eager to impart his encyclopedic knowledge about twentieth-century model trains. For what seemed like an eternity, Eric feigned interest as he searched for a way to end the conversation.
Fortunately, there is a way to exit gracefully.
We have all been in Eric’s place, stuck in a tedious, boring or uncomfortable conversation, at work functions or social gatherings. Common courtesy dictates that you don’t cut someone off mid-conversation and I personally know of no way to politely let someone know that you find their debate over live steam versus diesel-hydraulic powered model trains, well, boring.
This three-step signoff, however, will get you on your way without leaving your collocutor feeling slighted:
- Start with “Thank you.”
- Discover a spontaneous transition.
- Suggest forward momentum or a consolation prize.
“Thank You.” This part is easy. Whether or not you are enjoying someone’s company or conversation, it’s not hard to thank them for their time. You don’t have to be insincere and tell them how much you’ve enjoyed the conversation if in fact you haven’t, but there’s no harm in being gracious and thanking them for their time.
Discover a spontaneous transition. Polite excuses are easy to come by after the fact, but they often trip us up in the moment. The tried and true, “I’ve got a call to make,” “I’m going to be late for an appointment or lunch date” or even “I’d better go find my wife/colleague/friend” are standard but often feel forced without a plausible transition. A spontaneous interruption is the glue that holds your alibi together and makes the polite excuse work. A few good ones include:
- “Oh my goodness, I just realized its eight o’clock; I’ve got a call to make”; or
- “You know what? I just noticed the time, I’m going to be late for an appointment”; or
- “I’d love to continue the conversation, but unfortunately I do need to run, I need to find my husband.”
Suggest forward momentum or consolation prize. This is where true skill comes in. Adding a hint of forward momentum or offering a “consolation prize” in lieu of your continued presence turns an uncomfortable or awkward excuse into a graceful exit. Examples include offering to stay in touch with someone (only if you mean it), recommending the person’s business or hobby to someone else who might be interested, or committing to follow through on a topic the two of you just discussed — you will make sure to read the latest Wired article, try out that new iPhone surf report app, or visit that hole-in-the wall dive on your next visit to Memphis. It might be as simple as reminding your chatty new acquaintance of the fabulous dessert they should go try.
In Eric’s case, what he needed to do was thank the curator for his time, politely excuse himself and then offer to recommend the exhibit to a friend who would certainly be interested in taking a tour. It would have gone something like this:
“Thanks so much, what an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, I’d better get going, but I will definitely tell my father in law about the exhibit, he’s an avid history buff. Thanks again.”
If you feel like you can’t find any grounds for establishing forward momentum without being disingenuous (you wouldn’t dare subject a friend to the curator’s oration), then a final strategy is to simply acknowledge your counterparty’s passion and enthusiasm for a particular topic and express your gratitude for the quick lesson on model trains.
“Thanks so much for your time. How amazing — I could have never guessed these trains were actually hand built and powered by steam engines. Good luck with the exhibit and thanks again.”
A gracious and appreciative, “I never imagined there could be so much detail and precision in a model train!” goes a long way toward making the curator feel good about the conversation — and allowing you to skip away guilt-free.