So, you’re talking to someone — maybe a stranger, maybe you’re spouse — and the conversation just keeps dragging on. You don’t want to be rude, so you stand around smiling and nodding a lot longer than you actually want to. Do you cut them off? Just say it’s been nice talking and walk away? You do neither and just stick it out. By the time the talk finally comes to an end, you’re annoyed. But that’s better, you think, than pissing someone off.
The truth is that pretty much all of us suck at ending conversations. And according to a recent study, conversations rarely end when people want them to – thanks to a classic “coordination problem” most of us regularly face.
In two studies of 932 conversations, researchers asked conversants to share when they wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner –– an intimate in study one and a stranger in study two –– wanted it to end. The results found conversants had very little real idea when their partners wanted conversations to end, and that they underestimated how different their partner’s desires were from their own.
According to study author Adam Mastroianni, a fifth-year psychology PhD student at Harvard, this coordination problem takes place when what you choose to do depends on what you think someone else will choose to do. For example, if you’re trying to meet up for lunch and you think someone will be on time, then you’ll be on time. If you think they’ll be late, then it’s also okay for you to be late. “That’s easy to solve, because you can text to coordinate,” Mastroianni says.
In conversation, coordination is more difficult. You don’t tell the other person when you want to stop or when you want to continue when they don’t because it could come across as rude, combative, or defensive – so you end up hiding your desires. That can help you avoid being perceived as rude, but it doesn’t mean everyone ends up satisfied. Mastroianni notes that the majority of people say they wanted a conversation to end a little bit before it ended, and a minority of people wanted conversations to go on a lot longer.
Both scenarios can be tough to navigate, but Mastroianni says in both studies, the people who enjoyed conversations the least were the ones who wanted to end them sooner. The people who wanted to continue were just as happy as the people who said it ended when they wanted it to. So, in practice, that means it’s better to be left wanting more than less of a conversation. “I suggest erring on the side of ending the conversation a little earlier, knowing you have another one again in the future,” he says.
So how can we avoid this trap? Here’s what you need to know about how to end a conversation well.
How to End a Conversation with a Stranger
It can be both awkward and annoying to be part of a conversation longer than you want to, especially with someone you don’t know, and you may feel like dipping out makes you a horrible person – especially if you’re, say, chit chatting with your lonely, older neighbor and you can’t get a word in.
If you really want to go, don’t be afraid to respectfully interrupt, says Nick Bognar, a therapist in Pasadena, CA, says. He suggests saying something like, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I have two minutes to talk before I have to get to a meeting.” Speaking up essentially sets a “timer” so the other person knows to finish up and focus on the important stuff.
To show you’re listening and you care, Bognar also suggests reflecting back what you heard after your interruption – for example, you could say “You were saying you’re going out of town this weekend?” And while it can help to have an excuse for something else you need to do, you don’t have to. “You can also say, ‘It’s been nice talking to you, but I’m super tired, so I need to go,’” Bognar says. “It can be skillful to admit your own limitations rather than getting frustrated with the other person.”
And remember, in the process, that nobody’s perfect. We all go on too long (and want to get out sooner) at times. Being visibly imperfect in front of a person you don’t know that well, Bognar says, can actually build relational capital. We all know how lousy it feels to feel like the only imperfect person in a room, so a bit of authenticity – even in the form of messing up in a conversation – can actually help forge a connection.
How to End a Conversation with Your Spouse
Sure, it’s not fun to cut off your next-door neighbor or a parent at your kid’s pre-school, but ending a conversation with your spouse can feel worse, mostly because you actually have to see them again (not to mention deal with any residual conflict).
“A big reason you don’t leave a conversation when you want to with a stranger is you’re trying to be polite,” says Bognar. “The same politeness with strangers is kindness with people you know. So there might be more pressure to listen when the person matters more to you.”
Since it can feel especially bad to cut off someone you care about, Bognar recommends a simple thought exercise. “If you want to be done, it’s better and kinder to get out of it, even if the exit is rocky, rather than sitting and feeling frustrated and resentful with another person,” he says. “It’s in the interest of preserving relationships that you should leave when you want to.”
You can use the same tools to wind down a chat with someone you care about: Graciously interrupting, admitting your limitations, showing you care. Since you’re in an ongoing relationship with your spouse, it could also help to set another time to finish up. You could say something like, “I want to hear this, but I have something else to do or I’m feeling really drained. Can we circle back later?”
If you’re feeling squirmy about cutting off the conversation, Mastroianni says it may be worthwhile to ride it out as an expression of kindness. Sure, the coordination problem is irritating, but it may actually serve your relationship. “We may have arrived at this way of not telling someone what we want because it protects us,” he says. You could offend the other person or they could offend you, so sometimes, it’s better that you both don’t get what you want but instead part on good terms.
And if the conversation does end early, keep in mind that parting ways doesn’t mean something has gone wrong on either end. In Mastroianni’s studies, nobody on either side said they had a horrible time when a conversation went on too long or not long enough. “It just happens that two people in the course of human events have to stop talking to each other,” he says. “It’s easy to feel anxious about conversations and how they should go or end, but in the end conversations like this are what make life worth living.”