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How to end a conversation when someone won’t stop talking

It’s an essential skill—especially in the age of virtual meetings.

How to end a conversation when someone won’t stop talking
[Source image: GeorgePeters/Getty Images]

When everyone was in the office, it was easier to end a long conversation. Unless you were cornered in the breakroom by someone who kept talking, you could stand and exit the area, signaling that you had somewhere else to go. When you’re on the phone or a Zoom meeting—especially one-on-one—you have to be a little more creative.

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“Controlling Zoom meetings requires some of the same meeting management techniques applicable to in-person meetings but with a virtual twist,” says Debra A. Dinnocenzo, founder and president of VirtualWorks, a consulting and training firm that specializes in virtual work issues.

Here are a few tips for gracefully keeping things on track and wrapping up on time:

Set Parameters at the Beginning

For Zoom meetings, create and communicate a clear agenda with time targets for topics to be discussed or decisions to be made, suggests Dinnocenzo.

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“Clarify the amount of time available or the ‘hard-stop’ time at which the discussion must end,” she says. “Reference the agenda at key transitions in the meeting, reminding attendees that the meeting will end on time out of respect for the time of all participants.”

If you’re getting on a phone call, Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational and cross-cultural psychology at Brandeis University’s International Business School and author of Global Dexterity and Reach, suggests foreshadowing the ending.

“Whenever we deliver bad news, it’s good to let someone know it’s coming,” he says. “Although ending small talk isn’t a major source of bad news, it can still disappoint. So, cushion the blow by previewing your departure ahead of time.”

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For example, you could say, “I promised a colleague I’d meet them in 15 minutes, but until then, I’d love to talk about [this topic].”

Redirect the Conversation

If the meeting gets off track or one person is monopolizing the airtime, it’s time to step in and redirect the conversation to its end, says Joy Qualls, associate dean, and associate professor of communication studies at Biola University.

“Redirection that uses general conversation and does not call out or shame allows everyone to get the message, but doesn’t create an attitude of punitive disregard for those who may process verbally, miss in-person conversation, or who are socially unaware of the circumstances of virtual meetings,” she says.

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If an individual continues to talk, refer back to the agenda, suggests Jess Todtfeld, president of Success in Media,a communication and media training firm. “It’s okay to say, ‘Sorry to interrupt; I just want to bring up timing so we can keep the meeting on track,” he says. “Then bring up parameters. People work better with structure.”

It’s also a good idea to give a heads-up near the end of the allotted time, adds Todtfeld. “Give a warning so people know to wrap up soon,” he says.

Leverage Video Tools

Video meeting tools provide the meeting leader or host with some unique ways to manage a participant who dominates the discussion, says Dinnocenzo.

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“Visual cues can be used to indicate that time has been exhausted,” she says. “For example, making a ‘T’ hand gesture or holding up a sign with a clock on it can cause a pause in talking, allowing the meeting leader to regain control.”

In an extreme solution, meeting facilitators on video meeting platforms can mute participants after using other techniques to indicate it’s time to move on.

Create Asynchronous Follow Up Opportunities

Ending a conversation is easier when you provide a method for continuing it offline. Give specifics on and when how the topic will be addressed, says Crystal L. Bailey, director of The Etiquette Institute of Washington. “And actually follow-up,” she says.

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Add the topic to the agenda of the next meeting. Or offer asynchronous forms of messaging like Slack or email that help protect your time.

“Tell them that what they’re saying is valuable,” says Ashira Prossack, communication coach and trainer. “This allows you to keep the meeting on time without preventing the person who’s speaking from sharing their full idea. They may not be thrilled to have been cut off, but since they still have the opportunity to share via email, they won’t feel like what they had to say wasn’t being valued.”

Ending long conversations is important for long-term working relationships. “We get others to value our time by setting clear boundaries and sticking to them ourselves, which includes arriving on time for meetings, choosing the best format for the meeting and setting a clear end time,” says Bailey.

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