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Eight Ways to Get Out of an Unproductive Conversation

written by: Ryan Tetzlaff • edited by: Ginny Edwards • updated: 9/18/2014

Sometimes you need a way out of a conversation while keeping it professional. Luckily you've come to the right place. Below you'll find eight useful tips for getting out of an unproductive conversation.

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    Ending Unproductive Conversations

    Business People Although there are a number of clever ways to end a conversation, there are relatively few professional ways to do so. Although some people may be natural born talkers, unproductive or lengthy conversations are other times a sign of in-effective communication. Before diving into ways to end a conversation, take a look at N. Nayab’s article on examples of common miscommunication in the workplace.

    Let’s run through a scenario to help illustrate my tips – you set up a brief meeting with Megan and Bob to discuss a recent project and to get a status update on upcoming milestones. After getting the meat of the status updates out of the way, Megan starts discussing her baby’s ability to make adorable noises with Bob who is also a new parent. Bob chimes in with several examples of noises his kids make. After a few minutes of small talk, you realize you are in the middle of an unproductive conversation. What can you do to turn things around or get out of it?

    • Change the subject – Maybe you don’t necessarily need to end the conversation, but you do need to move it into more productive territory. Address the participants directly and try to regain control of the conversation. “Bob, Megan, I love hearing about your families – thanks for the updates, but I’m wondering if each of you can give me a quick update on each of your other projects? Are we on schedule?"
    • Be honest – If you need to cut a conversation short don’t lie about it or make up a flimsy excuse. “Bob, Megan, I’m sorry I need to cut things short, but I’m expecting a conference call from Terry this afternoon. I need to run and prepare for our meeting. I’ll talk to you later."
    • Check out – If the conversation rambles off in a direction you don’t want to follow, start dropping hints – ‘check out’ of the conversation – start using your phone or computer to check up on emails. The other participants should get the hint after you stop participating in the discussion.
    • The bail out - Sometimes you’ll get the talkative office coworker that needs to explain their issue to you in gory detail – every time they talk to you. Talk with your immediate coworkers and set up a ‘bail out’ time. If the talkative coworker talks more than a few minutes your coworker can then call you so you have a ringing phone as an excuse to end the conversation. This sounds corny, but really does work.
    • Wrap Up – If you think the conversation is running on a surefire way to end it is to go through the wrap up. Did you discuss or assign action items? Verbally recap any actions assigned and decisions made. This will not only help end the conversation, but will also help reinforce what was discussed.
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    Meetings and Phone Calls

    Sometimes the scenario isn’t as blatantly unproductive as the one above. How would you handle the ‘never-ending meeting’? For more details on running effective meetings, take a look at Richard Langly’s Facilitator Guide to Effective Meetings.

    • Use a parking lot or shelf – The parking lot and ‘shelf’ are holding places for things that don’t need to be discussed immediately but are still to be discussed at some other point. While discussing a project schedule, one of your project coordinators brings up a discussion he had with a frustrated customer. Instead of discussing the frustrated customer right there in the middle of the meeting, you can ‘shelf’ the discussion for later – at a more appropriate time or during a different meeting.
    • Agendas need time limits – You can have an agenda, but if you don’t assign time limits to each agenda item, how can you be sure you’ll cover each item appropriately?

    For calls with coworkers many of the above methods will still work. What about working with vendors or cold call sales calls? Without a face to face interaction it’s even more important to make sure you are communicating properly when on the phone. For more tips, take a look at N Nayab’s article on becoming a better communicator.

    • Sometimes sales people don’t know when to stop selling and start listening. If you need to get out of an unproductive conversation with a sales person, offer them your email address and ask them to send additional information in writing. On the plus side, you won’t have to take a copious amount of notes and it should help end the conversation. Again, be honest with sales people. If you don't think there is any chance you'll purchase their product, let them off easy and be honest.

    No matter the scenario, be sure to keep a professional demeanor - you never know - maybe next time you'll be the one creating an unproductive conversation. Be sure to check out Brighthub’s guide on effective communication for a round up of related articles.

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