The following excerpt is reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., from From Business Cards to Business Relationships: Personal Branding and Profitable Networking Made Easy, 2nd Edition, by Allison Graham. Copyright © 2012 by Allison Graham. All rights reserved.
When I started my company, I had a breakfast meeting with a good friend who is a very successful businessman. I shared my plan for teaching people about business networking and everything the concept entailed.
He laughed and said, "What I need to know is how to end a conversation. The only thing I can think to say when I want to leave the discussion is 'I have to go to the bathroom.' " I chuckled as I thought, "I do see him in hallways going to and from the bathroom – a lot."
As it turns out, exiting a conversation gracefully is the trickiest part of the Mingling Formula, even more so than starting a conversation. People figure once they're in, they're in. To make events worthwhile, you need to talk with multiple people. Learning how to draw a conversation to a close is critical.
For the most part, people don't want to end a conversation because they don't want to appear rude. Well, you're off the hook; the reverse is true. To monopolize someone's time is rude. The general rule of thumb is a maximum of 10 minutes for a conversation between two people at a business function or cocktail party. I'll give you even less. In my experience, the entire Mingling Formula should happen in 3 to 8 minutes.
Ending a conversation is often a relief for others. Do you really think the other person came to the event to spend his whole night talking with you? Most likely not! Once you get your head around the idea that it is okay to end a conversation, it will make it easier for you to do so without guilt.
There are three likely scenarios that can make it difficult to end a conversation:
1. Both parties would like to end the conversation, but neither knows how.
2. The conversation is really enjoyable and you don't want it to end.
3. Your conversation partner has identified you as a comfort zone and doesn't want you to leave because he or she will be left alone.
Fortunately, each type of conversation can be ended gracefully with the proper techniques. There are three ways to exit a conversation:
1. The verbal disengage
2. The third-party introduction
3. The "gotta-go" technique
It's easy to end conversations that fall into scenarios 1 and 2. Know that it's better to end the conversation on a high note and leave lots to talk about when you reconnect outside the event. If you hang on too long, you may overstay your welcome. This is a perfect situation for a verbal disengage. Simply have your closing lines ready to end the conversation politely. Some examples of conversation closers are:
- “I’d like to chat with you more about this. Why don’t we grab a coffee some time outside this busy event?” By offering a comment that suggests you’ll meet again somewhere else at another time, the contact will not be offended at all and you’ve already established a reason to connect later.
- “Do you have a business card?” is the perfect way to say, “I’m interested in communicating with you further, but our time together at this event has come to an end.”
- “That’s great. It was Bill, right?” Offer a short closing comment that offers validation to the conversation (“That’s impressive” or “No doubt you should be pleased with those results”) and then re-establish his name. This is helpful if you didn’t catch his name at the beginning.
- “Well, Joe, it’s been great talking with you. I’m glad I ran into you” is a natural closing line that prompts an almost immediate close.
I find this last exit line extremely effective even outside business functions when you just casually run into people, or when you want to close a meeting. The whole idea is to change the tone of the conversation to indicate it is time to part ways.
The Verbal Disengage Formula: Transition Word + Name + Relevant Statement (+ Next Step)
The last example above fits this formula very well: "Well (transition word), Joe (name), it's been great running into you (relevant statement), we should grab a coffee in the next few weeks (+ next step)." Closing with a next step is optional. It's only required if there is in fact a next step.
Use transition words, such as well, gosh, or you know, to change the direction of the conversation. These words act like verbal commas.
The name is just a nice closer. Most people use names at the beginning and end of conversations, not in the middle of it, so it's a subtle cue that the conversation is ending.
A complementary relevant statement gives the conversation closure. It recaps what you've done (run into each other, had a great conversation). Ideally, put it into the past tense to offer another subtle cue that indicates the end of the conversation.
Potentially add a next-step question or comment such as "Do you have a business card?" or "We should go for lunch/play golf/go for coffee" or "Call me when those tickets go on sale." Only suggest a next step if you genuinely plan on following through on the suggestion. Otherwise you risk ruining your credibility by leaving a trail of false promises hanging in the universe.
The second exit strategy, called the third-party introduction, is another great option to close a conversation gracefully. It's especially effective with scenario 3, when you are speaking with someone who simply doesn't want you to leave. This exit strategy capitalizes on the natural dance that happens as people mingle around a room.
To take advantage of this gracious exit, you simply introduce your contact to another person and once they start their own conversation, you allow them to chat while you begin a conversation with someone new.
Third-party introductions work best if you are in a high-traffic area. It's tough to have someone casually walk by and join the conversation if you're stuck in, or near, a corner. However, if no one happens to be conveniently nearby, you could suggest that both of you go over to so-and-so because you would like to introduce her to him.
When scenario 3 happens, the third-party introduction is your best bet because people who are shy or introverted may be concerned that if you leave them, they won't find anyone else to talk with and will be left standing alone.
Don't leave someone hanging, but at the same time, you have to respect yourself and not allow others to monopolize your time. Be kind, but understand that others are not your responsibility.
As a last resort, you can use the "gotta-go" technique. Chances are you've used this exit strategy before. "I've gotta-go to the auction table, bar, restroom …."
To save your credibility when using this technique, if you say you've "gotta go," then that means you've got to go where you said you were going. It's rather insulting to be left by someone who is supposedly going to the bathroom, only to see that person walk directly to the bar to fill up with more liquid. That type of white lie chips away at your credibility. Use the "gotta-go" strategy sparingly.