This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fine Art of Small Talk" by Debra Fine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you ever get stuck in a conversation and don’t know how to end it? Is there a way to politely escape a conversation?
Whether you’re at a business party, an event, or a family reunion, odds are that at some point you’ve been stuck in an awkward conversation. Luckily, you don’t have to fake a phone call to get out of it—just try one of these tips.
In this article, we’ll explore how to gracefully end a conversation without burning any bridges.
Ending a Conversation
Eventually, no matter how engaging a conversation is, the time comes to move on. Furthermore, occasionally, a conversation isn’t engaging or enjoyable, and you might want to leave swiftly.
When you know how to end a conversation and leave a good impression, Fine explains, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident about starting one.
(Shortform note: Comfort and preserving your reputation arguably aren’t the only, or even main, reasons to master the graceful exit. Kio Stark—who gave a TED talk on why you should talk to strangers—argues that in most cases, the person who started the conversation is responsible for ending it. When you start talking to someone, Stark explains, they assume you’re doing so for a reason—and politeness dictates they hang around until you’re satisfied. If you can’t or won’t end the conversation yourself, you force your partner to commit a faux-pas by breaking off before it’s clear that you’re done talking.)
How to Make Your Exit
Before you leave a conversation, Fine urges you to have a clear destination in mind and be honest about it. Make it clear that the reason you need to leave is because there’s something you need to do. For example, if your next goal is to get some food, speak to the event’s host, or make a call, courteously say so. When you’ve disengaged, do what you said you would: If your former conversational partner sees you doing something else, they’ll take it personally.
(Shortform note: Don’t worry if your reason for leaving isn’t very strong. Research shows that the word “because,” followed by a reason—even one that’s not compelling—leads to a much higher likelihood of acceptance of a situation. A Harvard psychologist, who had researchers try cutting in line to use the copy machine, discovered people were 34% more likely to allow the intrusion when the researchers said “because I need to make copies” than when they didn’t give a reason.)
Furthermore, Fine suggests that, when it’s time to leave, you thank your conversational partner for their expertise, their time, or the joy of conversing with them. A genuine compliment or expression of gratitude leaves the other person feeling good about you and gives you an air of confidence and poise.
For example, you might say: “Lydia, it’s been wonderful to talk to you about… I need to… Thanks for sharing your expertise,” or “it was so thoughtful of you to introduce me to Clifford. Thanks!”
(Shortform note: An additional important benefit of expressing gratitude at the end of a conversation is that it improves the likelihood of your conversational partner opting to stay connected with you long-term. Research shows that expressions of gratitude signal warmth, friendliness, and thoughtfulness—all of which contribute to a feeling in the recipient that the burgeoning relationship is worth investing in. For this reason, people you thank are more likely to give you their contact information or extend an invitation to spend time with them in the future.)
Fine suggests that if you want to see the person again, you say so. Issue an invitation and don’t take it personally if you’re turned down.
(Shortform note: Fine doesn’t explain how to extend an invitation, or when to do it—just that you should mention you’d like to. Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, gives more specific advice in this area: He suggests following up on an initial contact between 12 and 24 hours later. When you do, he says, thank the person for their time or help, remind them of a part of your conversation—a joke they made, or a topic you agreed on—and suggest you meet again. You don’t have to set a time or invite them to anything specific right away—just express that you want to meet again, and let them know you’ll be in contact soon to discuss the details.)
Additional Escape Tools
If you feel it’s time for a conversation to end, chances are, the feeling is mutual. It may just be that you both aren’t sure how to escape. With that said, sometimes you’ll just feel stuck with someone who’s content to talk forever. In either case, the graceful exit is a reassuring technique to have in your tool belt.
The following are additional exit techniques to take advantage of; whichever you use, be sure to express gratitude to end on a strong note:
Be direct: The next time there’s a pause in the conversation, smile and put out your hand. Say “well, it was nice talking to you.” It might be abrupt, but it’s a formula people are used to; the automatic response will likely be “you too,” and then you’re free to close out.
Leverage “because”: As Fine notes, “because” is a powerful tool—but it’s important you do what you say you’ll do. If you really can’t find a reason to leave, try a classic: “It was nice talking to you, but I need the restroom.”
Give your partner an excuse to leave: This technique lets you imply you feel you’ve taken enough of the other person’s time; you’re freeing them. Try: “I’ll let you get back to the party; it was nice talking to you!” Or: “Thanks for the chat; I’ll let you get another drink.”
Find them a new partner: If you see someone you know, especially a person who might enjoy your partner’s company, pull them into the fold. “Hey Steve, we were just talking about… What’s your opinion on that?” Once they get talking, you can make an excuse to slip away without leaving them all alone.
Exchange social media: Ask your partner if they’re on Facebook, LinkedIn, and so forth; in doing so, you imply you’re interested in looking them up and perhaps connecting again in the future. It softens the blow of leaving and expands your network. In the worst case, you’re not obligated to follow up.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fine Art of Small Talk summary:
- Why we need small talk and why we shouldn't avoid it
- How to appear confident and engaging in any context
- How to break the ice with strangers and keep the conversation going