Maybe this has happened to you: An important client repeatedly uses precious meeting time to catch up on the latest reality TV and the clock—and your patience—is ticking. If meetings with a coworker repeatedly run over and cause you to miss your train home, you may start to dread working with them and wonder how you can get reassigned to a different project.
Drawing the line in conversation can be difficult, but failing to do so can harm our relationships. When you’re unable to exit a conversation, you may tire yourself out, your trust in others can erode, and you may begin to feel hurt and alone.
Luckily, there are ways to end conversations before they leave you emotionally burdened, make you feel unsafe, or just cause you to be late to your next engagement. Closing the conversation should be done sparingly—no one wants to become known as the one who’s always running off mid-conversation—but when it’s called for, you’ll be glad you have these tactics at your disposal.
To effectively end a conversation, there are several techniques to master.
1. Timebox the Conversation
Timeboxing means giving your conversation partner a set amount of time before you move on. And it works particularly well when you’re listening to those who require more from you than you can give, but whom you may be incentivized to keep happy—including the coworkers you must play nicely with. You might have gotten all the information you need, but have a meandering manager who tends to go off on tangents, or a direct report who struggles to get to the heart of their challenges during your regular one-on-one time. By timeboxing the conversation, you can maintain these crucial connections without being inauthentic or draining your energy reserves.
Here are some simple ways to timebox your next conversation:
- Set a time limit up front. In secure relationships where trust has been established, being honest about what you can commit to is an easy way to timebox the conversation. Letting your conversation partner in on your thinking frees you from the stress of wondering how you’ll later move things along and establishes clear expectations. Try: “I only have 20 minutes to chat, but I’m all ears until then!”
- Pick a spot with time constraints. If the relationship isn’t a close one, setting a limit up front can appear ungenerous or put undue pressure on your conversation partners to spit it out quickly. Instead, you can try a more subtle, but equally effective, approach by taking a conversation somewhere with time constraints already built in. You can proactively curb time with the coworker who talks too much by choosing the right location: For example, avoid meeting in your office’s communal spaces, which can be used for long periods of time, and aim for conference rooms that must be reserved on a limited basis instead. You’re building in a clear conclusion (and encouraging efficiency)—without anyone’s feelings getting hurt. You might say: “Looks like we’re getting booted from this conference room. We’ll pick this up again next week!”
- Set an alarm. OK, so you probably don’t need a reminder, but having an audible alarm go off can serve as an obvious cue for your conversation partner to know that it’s time to go. This works particularly well at the office, where others are not likely to pry about what your alarm is really for. When it inevitably goes off, excuse yourself with a simple, “I have to get going now,” and move on.
2. Take a Time-Out
Time-outs are a helpful tactic in conversations where emotions are high, like performance reviews, team retrospectives, and other office moments where feedback—sometimes the kind that’s difficult to hear—is shared. Time-out requests are composed of two parts: an explicit bid to stop and the context for your appeal. They work by being clear about your need to exit the conversation and explaining why, to prevent hurting your conversation partner’s feelings. Time-outs are essential to easing you out of your most heated discussions.
Asking for a time-out works best in conversations where you already have some rapport—and it can actually strengthen your connection. By being honest with your conversation partner, you show that you trust they will understand where you’re coming from; you show the same honesty and vulnerability you hope they’ll share with you, too.
Phrases like, “This conversation is important to me, but I’m having trouble hearing you at the moment,” and, “I think I need a breather—I’m noticing how charged this is for me,” can help.
When possible, you can also give others a heads up on when you’ll be ready to return to the topic, by saying something like, “I want to make sure I get this right and need some time to think through it. Can we pick this back up tomorrow?” or, “I need a bit more time to make sure I’ve understood your position fully. Mind if we come back to this in an hour?”
3. Use a Diversion
Not every relationship is strong enough to sustain candor. In these instances, less is more when it comes to quickly extricating yourself from an otherwise draining conversation. Diversions work by suggesting you can no longer talk because a competing priority or activity requires your attention. They’re particularly effective with the friendly colleague whose break room catch-ups consistently leave you late to your next meeting; for the boss whose one-on-one meetings reliably run late, despite your best efforts; and for the too-friendly client who wants to keep chatting long after you’ve finished going through your agenda.
These phrases are designed to make the reason a conversation has to end more about you than the other person. They can be specific (“I need to get to a meeting”) or vague (“I have to get going now”), but generally, the less specific the better. Keep it courteous and to the point. You can try saying, “I have to get going now, but it was good to see you,” or, “I’d love to talk some more, but I’m really late.”
4. Acknowledge It's Over
Sometimes, one or both parties’ expectations for a conversation become misaligned. Perhaps a coworker from another team is trying to complete a project, and you realize you simply don’t have the right information or skills to help them. If your conversation partner’s needs can’t be met given your experience, expertise, or knowledge base, acknowledging when the conversation is falling short can move it in the right direction—even if that means moving on without you.
It may feel like you’re quitting on your conversation partner when they need you most, but being honest about when you’re maxed out can open new paths to meeting their needs. Redirecting in this way means placing responsibility back in your conversation partner’s hands—exactly where it belongs.
The following phrases can help:
- “I’m afraid I’m not being helpful here. I wonder if we should look elsewhere to make progress.”
- “We’ve done some good work here. To get to the next level, I’d recommend reaching out to someone with more [relevant history, expertise, etc.].”
- “It sounds like [topic, question, problem, etc.] is still on your mind. Perhaps it’s time to [seek input elsewhere, take a break from the issue, etc.].”
- “It seems like your question remains unanswered. What if we [bring someone in for more guidance, take more time to reflect, try a different approach] instead?”
5. Distance Yourself
In extreme cases, ending a conversation isn’t enough—you might also need to end the relationship. If you notice that you’re dreading speaking with an individual, leaving conversations feeling lethargic, or questioning your self-worth because of your interactions with someone, it may be time to reassess the relationship.
For instance, maybe there’s a colleague you’ve become particularly competitive with, intentionally or not, and now meetings with them have become an exhausting battle of who can contribute an idea better or faster. Or perhaps the office politicking has gotten out of hand, and you’ve begun to feel manipulated by a peer. When possible, distancing, the act of progressively reducing interactions with your conversation partner, may be the way out.
When called for, you can create distance by following these steps. Note that these are small steps, not dramatic ones, which means you’ll likely be able to implement them to at least a small degree even with the coworkers and peers you still need to interact and partner with to get your job done.
- Reduce interactions. Declining social outings or work lunches may seem extreme, but it isn’t if your well-being is at stake. Assuming it’s an option, reduce how frequently you see your conversation partner. Schedule meetings with a certain coworker once a month instead of once a week, for instance.
- Generate space. Notice how quickly you respond to your conversation partner. Do you answer their every beck and call right away? Try to pause before you instinctively respond to that text or email. If it’s not urgent, give yourself space to breathe first.
- Be open to changing course. Your conversation partner may notice that you are creating distance. (If they don’t, you might take that as evidence that you’ve made the right choice.) If they do and follow up with you (“I’ve noticed you haven’t been available lately. Is everything OK?”), consider this an olive branch. Pick up the call, meet for that coffee, and see if continuing to distance yourself from this relationship still makes sense.
Sometimes you have to call it. When a conversation can no longer be redirected, has become unsafe, or has drained your energy reserves, your best bet may be to make an exit. It’s not always easy, but you can use these strategies to politely and effectively draw the line.
Adapted from Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection by Ximena Vengoechea, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ximena Vengoechea, 2021.