Saturday, 31 December 2011

Gracefully exiting a conversation

How to be extraordinarily rude
A few months ago, I committed a conversational faux pas. I was at a screening of Connected the film, hanging out afterwards with David Hood and some other peeps from the Collaboratory. It was getting late, and I realised I needed to skedaddle or else I wouldn't get home before 1AM. David was explaining the Open IDEO collaboratory concept to someone and I was tensing up. I'd spent the whole of yesterday afternoon working on the project with David and didn't feel like I needed to listen to the explanation.

"Just wait until there's a gap in the conversation" I told myself. "Just wait...calm...zen.......ARGH!!! This is taking too long". So halfway through one of David's sentences, I said "Gotta go!" and ran off.

It was effective. I got out of there right away. But man I must have looked like a PRICK! Sorry David!

How to exit a conversation gracefully
I was reflecting on how I could have done that better. I'm sure a lot of people have similar problems. You're locked in a conversation with someone who has a lot to say and you want to be somewhere else. The question is, how can you end the conversation without offending the other person?

What not to do
Let's start off with three things not to do:

1. Interrupt them mid-flow: only do this if you want to look like a PRICK. It's rude. If you're in a group, it causes them to lose their train of thought.

2. Lie badly: a temptation might be to come up with some excuse for why you need to leave. If you're clever, this can work. White lies are useful social lubricant. But if your lie is obviously bogus, the other person will see through it and think less of you.

3. Poorly executed distractions: You might fake a phone call, or point to the window "Look out there!" and then artfully duck away. If you're really good at this, you might pull it off, but most of the time, people will see through your illusion and grasp the underlying message "I don't want to spend any more time with you".  I think this is unfair on the other person. It's a veiled insult. They will be left confused. Was that really a work phone call, or did they just press the ringtone button on their phone?

What you can do
The issue I have with techniques two and three is you are not being authentic and you are abandoning your duty of care to the other person. You're leaving them all alone and forcing them to fend for themselves. For many people, talking to strangers is really difficult and plucking up the courage to talk to you was a big deal for them. Here are two techniques that allows you to leave gracefully without letting them down.

Be a host
I reckon the most graceful way to leave a conversation is to be a host. Think about a host at a dinner party. They are constantly floating around, matching people up and nudging people to start a conversation. After they've connected two people up, they flutter away. And do you resent them for that? No, you recognise that it is the host's role to do that and you even develop warm fuzzy feelings towards them for matching you up with someone.

Introduce them to someone
So in a networking context, what you can do is suddenly say "Oh you have to meet Jack!" and drag them over to meet Jack. You then introduce them to Jack and explain exactly why the two should talk. If you do it well, both Jack and the conversational bore you were stuck with will love you for it. Hopefully they are highly compatible and will have lots to talk about. They'll think nice thoughts about you for making the connection. Meanwhile, you're now free to leave the conversation and find someone else to talk to or bugger off if you want to leave altogether.

What if you don't know anyone else there?
This is where authenticity comes into play. If you feel like they're dominating your time at the event and you'd like to meet other people, it's perfectly fine to say "I've really enjoyed talking to you, but I'm conscious that there are a lot of other people here. I think it would be good for both of us to go meet some other people. Shall we go and join a group somewhere?". The key here is that you're not abandoning them. You're going with them, so they feel comfortable.

Yet they have still got that subtle message that they were monopolising your time a bit and hopefully they'll learn for next time.

What about in group conversations?
It's much easier to leave a group conversation than a 1-1 conversation. The other group members can keep on talking without you and will not be offended if you leave. Depending on whether you are sticking around to talk to other people, you can say one of two things:

1. You're sticking around:
The easiest thing to do here is create an excuse. "I'm going to dash off to the men's room." or "I'm going to go grab a drink". Make sure you wait for a break in the conversation unlike my rude behaviour:P  And make sure you actually go do what you said you would do.

2. You're skedaddling:
This is even easier. Just say your goodbye and dash off. "It was great to meet you all, but I've got to run to go pick up the kids"

What techniques do you use to gracefully exit a conversation? Any ideas on how to execute a distraction artfully:P?

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