Of course, if you don't know how to start a conversation, ending one shouldn't be much of a problem. That said, starting a conversation is way more important than ending the conversation. But both approaches (start and finish) have to happen and can be dicey if not done properly.
Especially if you don't know what you're doing and don't know why you're in the conversation in the first place. So let's start there!
Business networking is about learning from and helping others. You help them -- they help you right back. And all of that can't happen without a good conversation.
A good conversation, at least when you're networking, often begins with an introduction and some in-depth questions. In fact, if you're able to ask great questions, give great answers, tell a story or two, be interesting, establish common ground, and find a way to help one another over a few laughs, you're on your way!
But how do you break away from that great conversation to meet other people? Should you? Will you offend them? Will it feel weird for you?
Maybe, maybe and maybe. It gets worse.
What if the conversation you're having is boring, there is no common ground, and you can't wait to get out of there? (Not a complete train wreck but close!)
Truth be told, I have a difficult time ending conversations when I'm in a networking scenario. It's not that I don't know how. I just simply love spending time talking to great people in business settings and my fear is the next person I meet may not be as much fun or as good a connection. Sounds shallow but it's true.
I try not to speak to any one person (or to any small group) for longer than 6-8 minutes (without ever looking at my watch because that's just rude). But I try to mentally establish a time limit so I can break away to meet others and also allow those I'm speaking with to mingle.
Do I ever spend less than 6 minutes with anyone? Absolutely -- when there isn't a great connection.
Do I ever spend more than 8 minutes speaking with anyone? You bet. When I have permission and there is good reason to do so (business, social, educational, all the above).
Before tackling how to end a conversation, it's important to explore why. As in, why should you end the conversation? (Probably a great title for a future article.)
There are only a few reasons to end a conversation at a networking event or meeting.
- They're pitching you a product or service. (Not networking. You wouldn't do that!)
- The conversation is boring and not going anywhere.
- There is no common ground or common interest.
- They don't like you. You don't like them. You don't like one another (It happens).
- You sense they're done with you and want to talk to others. You're done with them.
- You can talk to each other forever but it's time to go ("You had me at hello!").
- One of you needs to meet or speak with a particular person in the room.
- One of you must offer an introduction for the other or for someone else.
- One of you has to mingle because you're the host, speaker, or both.
It comes down to three scenarios: Not a good connection, a good connection, or a good connection for someone you know.
Here are some ideas that may help you the next time you're in that awkward moment!
Not a Good Connection
Always be polite. Remember, you won't hit it off with everyone you meet. Often, if you don't feel a good vibe about them, they won't feel it about you. After asking some good questions about them, make a judgment call. Do you like them? Do you like their answers? Are they asking questions about you? Do they seem interested in learning more? Are they open to exchanging information and exploring ways of helping one other? If you feel the answer is no, simply end the conversation when it "feels right" (not in the middle of a story they might be telling) and offer a very low level of help. "Thank you for our conversation! If I can be of help to you in any way at this event, certainly call on me. Good luck today and see you soon!" Shake hands, smile, and be on your way. Again, always be respectful and polite. Keep in mind they may feel just as relieved for the end as you!
A Good Connection
Let's just call it a good to great connection. You like each other. Maybe you love each other! Everything seems to be breaking right. Lots of laughs, stories, common ground, and ways of helping each other for the long haul. You see a lunch meeting in your future. All good things! You may not want the conversation to end but at some point -- it must. Remember that 6-8 minute mental clock? Well, it applies here too! After you get to that 8 minute point, ask permission to continue the dialogue. "I'm really enjoying our conversation but the last thing I want to do is take up your time if you want to meet others. Do you have a few more minutes or do you want to exchange cards and we can set something up?" Or simply end the conversation with a promise to follow up after exchanging cards. Similar to above, if you like them, they probably like you too.
A Good Connection for Someone You Know
Again, you like each other a lot, but you're not the one for them. There simply isn't a fit given your industry, profession, or focus. This is when you wear the hat of a referral partner. You might be thinking this connection would be perfect for that CPA in your business group. Or a great hire for the managing director in your agency. Or the perfect coach for a colleague. Now you should be upfront about asking questions on behalf of someone else. "Given our respective lines of work, I'm not sure if there is a good business fit for one another per se although maybe I'm being short sighted. What seems more obvious to me is how you might be a great resource for a CPA friend of mine. I'd like to potentially introduce you to him!" Great approach. Just make sure you only refer those you trust, like, and respect otherwise it will make everyone look bad -- mostly you.
Bottom line, ending a "not so great" conversation comes down to rejection. Nobody likes to be rejected and almost nobody likes to make others feel rejected. But as in sales, there is always the risk of rejection, which is the same thing as not being accepted (I think Maslow covered that!). Be direct and do what you must with respect, empathy, and professionalism.
In writing this piece, I recall many attendees at my events asking questions about how to break away from a conversation and how some had built in excuses allowing them to make their departure if need be. Everything from going to the bar, tending to their phone, using the restroom, or getting seconds at the buffet table.
Coming up with an excuse that isn't truthful or upfront is never a good approach. Why? Because it's not truthful or upfront. And it can become awkward -- especially if it backfires. (Ever excuse yourself to go to the restroom and the person you're looking to escape from offers to go with you?)
See you at the buffet table.