OK, Gotta Run: Ending Unpleasant Conversations

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

Here is something they don't teach you in business school, but should: How to delicately dislodge one's self from the Conversation from Hell. This is incredibly important knowledge, especially if the chat you're having is with someone who can help your career.

We all dread these awful encounters. Topics usually covered include the following.

  • Their preposterous views on: nitwit bosses, American Idol contestants, yoga instructors, Sarah Palin, and simple fixes for global warming.
  • Their petty annoyances with: clueless spouses, undeserving Academy Award winners, temperamental garage door openers, lavish salaries earned by postal carriers, and the new pain in some body part suffered upon awakening this morning.
  • Their obsessive and somewhat disturbing hobbies including: HO gauge model trains, ballroom dancing, Victorian tea parties, collections of Naziana and converting PCs into fish tanks.
Lacking a Jaws-of-Life tool to pry ourselves from an unfortunate encounter, is there an artful way to disengage?

Jodi Glickman Brown -- who I'm sure is a stunning conversationalist -- offers up a three-step process in her unlikely post on HBR.org, Exiting a Conversation Gracefully. She summarizes:

  1. Start with "Thank you."
  2. Discover a spontaneous transition.
  3. Suggest forward momentum or a consolation prize.
Here is her real-life example:
"Thanks so much, what an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, I'd better get going, but I will definitely tell my father in law about the exhibit, he's an avid history buff. Thanks again."
I think we can do better. Share with us your technique for delivering the 'K Bye.

(Yawn image by Orin Zebest, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.