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The Dreaded No-Exit Conversation

Getting stuck in a conversation as the person you are talking with goes on and on ad infinitum has to be one of the most frustrating situations at a business social event.

When we teach etiquette, we counsel taking a moment to consider your options before you choose a course of action that, while it may solve the immediate problem, leaves a relationship in worse shape.

For instance, you might choose simply to walk away while the person is in mid-sentence. Problem solved for you in the short run, but your callous action could come back to haunt you later when the person talks disparagingly about you to others.

You could try to escape the conversation by excusing yourself to the restroom. As long as you actually then go there, this option can work. Of course, there is no guarantee that Mr. Talkative won’t follow you right into the restroom. And that’s a topic for another column.

You might take a quick look around and spy a friend who is walking by. “Jim,” you call out to your friend, “Please join us for a minute. I’d like you to meet John.” Then you do the polite thing by bringing “Jim” into the conversation. “Mr. Talkative and I were just talking about fly fishing. Didn’t you recently go on a fly-fishing trip? Where was that?” Now, as Jim starts to answer your question, you turn to Mr. Talkative and say, “It’s been nice talking with you. Maybe we can catch up again later.” Then you step away. I call this maneuver “The Hand-off.” While it works, you may find that your friend Jim is now no longer your friend Jim, but at least you’ve escaped Mr. Talkative.

Alternatively, you might try the benevolently honest approach to the problem. Step into the conversation when Mr. Talkative takes a breath: “Mr. Talkative, it’s been great chatting with you. Perhaps we could exchange contact information and catch up later?’ Or, “Mr. Talkative, I’ve enjoyed talking with you. But I see Jim Smith and I do need to touch base with him. Perhaps we can continue our conversation later?” You’ve made the break, but done so in a gentle way that offers Mr. Talkative the possibility of getting together later. And when Mr. Talkative sees you begin a conversation with Jim, he doesn’t feel as if he’s been dissed or left hanging.

The goal is to exit the conversation in a way that maintains or even builds the relationship while solving the problem. The most difficult part is to take a moment to consider options rather than doing the impulsive thing because the impulsive action may also be the one you end up having to apologize for later. It would be better to do a little proactive problem solving and get it right the first time.

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