Ending a small-talk conversation can be tricky business. You have other things to do — maybe you need to go back to your desk or have another call to make. Or perhaps you’re at a party and want to have a chance to speak with someone else. You certainly don’t want to leave a conversation with hurt feelings, but you also don’t want to unnecessarily prolong it. So, how can you increase the chances that the work you’ve done to build a relationship won’t go down the tubes with an awkward ending?
Andy Molinsky Ph.D. is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the forthcoming book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin/Random House, January 2017).
Editor: Saad Shaheed
1. Provide a rationale for ending the conversation.
Rationales serve two purposes: They provide an explanation for why you’re signaling an end to the conversation — which gets you off the hook — and they indicate that you’ve enjoyed the conversation, which increases the odds of a future interaction. Here are a few examples:
- “I have to go in a few minutes, but before I go, I’d love to hear a bit more about (whatever you were discussing)… ”
- “I have to go, but I really like your advice about (whatever you were discussing). I’ll keep you in the loop about how it goes…”
- “I’m enjoying this conversation, but I notice that it’s 9:30, and I have to be home at 10. If it’s OK with you, I’m going to go, but let’s talk again…”
2. Leverage your immediate surroundings.
Use what’s in your immediate surroundings to help construct your rationale. For instance, if there is a drink table nearby, ask your colleague if they want to grab a drink — knowing full well that you might either get split up in the crowd or encounter other people along the way — thus ending the conversation “organically.”
3. Make an introduction.
Another "organic" way to smooth an exit is to introduce your conversational partner to someone else as a way to end the conversation, and to help two additional people make a connection.
4. Foreshadow the ending.
Whenever we deliver “bad news,” it’s good to let someone know it’s coming. And although ending small talk isn’t a major source of bad news, it can still disappoint. So, cushion the blow by previewing your departure ahead of time: "I promised my friend that I’d introduce him to someone, but before I do, I’d love to hear a little bit more about…”
5. Remember: You might not be the only one hoping to get out of the conversation.
Finally, remember that if you’re itching to end the conversation, you might not be alone. Most people mingling at a public gathering know the deal: You talk for a while and then move on. The trick is doing it in a graceful manner that preserves the relationship you’ve built. So, don’t worry about hurting the other person’s feelings by ending the conversation. They might be thinking the exact same thing.