How to End a Conversation

On your way to a meeting, someone stops you to ask a “quick” question. You’ve been chatting with a new acquaintance at a networking event, but you’re ready to meet new people. A colleague who’s been out of the office has been sharing her vacation stories, and now it’s time to get to your next appointment. How do you gracefully end a conversation?

Getting out of a conversation both quickly and smoothly can be challenging. You might let conversations awkwardly peter out and die a slow death. Or you might abruptly stop—equally as awkward—without any wrap up or transition. A “stop” is not the same as an “end.” You might stop reading a book or watching a movie, but that doesn’t mean you got to The End. Don’t just stop talking. End the conversation.

A good ending brings satisfaction. It leaves a positive impression in the other person’s mind. As Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering, “how you end things … shapes people’s experience, sense of meaning, and memory.” Time is a valuable resource. Sometimes you need to invest it in people; other times, you need to protect it for yourself. The ability to leave a conversation helps you be efficient and honor your priorities. Yet, how you end matters.

To close a conversation, you need two things: appropriate words and purposeful nonverbals.

First, verbally signal your intentions. Be direct. In presentation skills training, we call this a “yellow light.” People always handle transitions better when they’re expected. Yet, we resist telling people in advance “the end is near” because we anticipate a negative response. In reality, the opposite usually happens. It’s when people are unprepared for the end (of a presentation, activity, or conversation) that they balk. In workshops, I tell participants, “One more minute,” before wrapping up an activity. When my kids were little, at the park I’d always tell them, “You’ve got five minutes!” before packing up to go. Then, the end is expected and better accepted.

When you’re ready to end a conversation, say so. There are hundreds of ways to do this. Here are a few ideas:

  • I gotta get going…
  • I have an appointment coming up…
  • I see someone over there I need to talk to…
  • I need to go (eat some lunch, use the bathroom, check in with my kids/boss/employee/neighbor/pet tarantula)…
  • I have a deadline coming up…
  • I need to stop chatting for now…

Don’t just walk off, though. That phrase is a “yellow light,” a signal that the end is coming. It is not the end itself. Once you’ve said that, make a closing statement that implies “good bye” or “thank you.”

  • I enjoyed talking with you.
  • It’s been a pleasure.
  • Thanks for listening/for the information.
  • I appreciated what you said.
  • I’ll think/do something about this.

There’s no need to mention follow-up (call me, see you later, let’s chat another time…) unless you want to. Don’t be disingenuous. Do honestly and graciously sum up what you got from the conversation.

Once you’ve transitioned verbally, then you need to do so nonverbally. Create a break. Here are the steps:

  1. While you’re saying good-bye or thank you, smile (if appropriate) and make eye contact. You could also shake hands or hug.
  2. Break eye contact. Briefly glance downward. Be sure to breathe.
  3. While you’re looking down, begin to move toward your destination: your office, the exit, the bathroom, or another part of the room. If you’re seated at your desk or a conference table, shift your body position.
  4. When you look up, look toward where you’re going or what you’re doing, not back at the person.
  5. Walk purposefully and breathe. If you’re at your desk, begin working and breathe.

The entire transition takes about one second, maybe two. The point is to create a nonverbal distinction between the old activity (conversation) and the new. Give the person your full attention when you give your “yellow light” and “good bye.” Avoid looking at your phone while you’re speaking to them. Make eye contact. Give your conversation a proper ending. Then, look down and make a definite break.

Ending with positive nonverbals, and then making a clear nonverbal change gives the other person permission to go off and do other things. It signals that you are now on to other things, too. Breathing makes the whole process normal. It takes the awkwardness out of it.

In between the slow, agonizing, languishing demise and the abrupt, harsh cut-off, there’s a beautiful middle ground. Be clear and decisive when you need to end a conversation. Use it as an opportunity to invest in the connection with a closing remark and eye contact. Then move naturally and purposefully to your next activity.

Endings are a part of life. If you let them just happen, they often happen awkwardly, or even painfully. If you’re proactive and mindful in your approach to endings, including mundane ones, you can infuse them with grace, ease, and meaning.

Change your communication, change your life.  

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