Whether it's the office Christmas party or networking event, mingling with a roomful of strangers isn't easy. If you thought introducing yourself was nerve-wracking enough, knowing how to gracefully exit a conversation can be even trickier.
"We all know how to introduce ourselves, but when it comes to saying goodbye it's not clear how to do it. Some people confuse a goodbye with rejection, which makes it doubly dicey," says Sue Shellenbarger, WSJ Work & Family Columnist.
So is there anything wrong with using the old standby lines of 'excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom' or 'I need to refresh my drink?'
According to Sue, these kind of excuses are "pretty transparent" and people might not believe you.
Sue says: "It doesn't sound very authentic or leave the other person feeling very appreciated or warm. Worse yet, some people have told me that when they tried those excuses, their conversation partner offered to go along with them - so it didn't really accomplish what they wanted."
Be fully present in the conversation
In order to successfully exit a conversation, you must first have given the person your full attention.
It takes only three to five minutes to have a good conversation, according to Sue, and while you're there you may as well be present and not let your impatience show.
"Focus on what the person is saying. Don't let your eyes look over their shoulder or glance around the room. Then, when it's time to leave, take charge, summarize the conversation and express appreciation for something the person has said," advises Sue.
For example, you might say 'I really enjoyed hearing about your holiday or your career plans.' Commenting on what the person has told you leaves them feeling listened to and appreciated.
If you're at a networking event it's fine to be honest if you have an agenda, says Sue. For example, after you have expressed appreciation to the person, you might say 'I promised myself I'd meet at least five people tonight, so I'll say goodbye now,' or 'I must go and speak to this other person before the end of the night.'
Introducing a third person
If you've listened carefully to your conversation partner, you can introduce them to a third person who shares a similar interest, or perhaps grew up in the same town. However, you need to do this sensitively and there needs to be a genuine common interest between them.
What not to do
Finally, there are some dos and don'ts to avoid when it comes to gracefully exiting a conversation.
Avoid using vague language and don't let the conversation trail off into "Well, then, ok..." and simply wander away.
"Sometimes people just stop responding, or they turn to someone else, or they make up a lie like 'we must have coffee next week', when you know they have no attention of seeing you again," says Sue.
"If you know you're not going to meet the person again, it's better to say: 'It's been great talking with you. I hope our paths cross again.'"
Whether you're socialising at a networking event or cocktail party, the short encounters you have with people can be intense and personal. It's easy for others to read your signals the wrong way, so if you're in any doubt, be as polite and considerate as possible.
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