Anyone who has been in a networking setting has experienced the pain of being held hostage by someone in a conversation you desperately want to flee.
Maybe it’s a middle-aged guy who’s just excited to be away from his family for the evening – so excited that he forgot to bring his inhibition and self-restraint. He spent the last hour fueling himself on a steady diet of jalapeno poppers and Crown Royal, and he’s headed your way. He sloppily enters your conversation still laughing about the killer joke he just told the unlucky group behind you, and he’s ready to make you all his “BFFs” (his term, not mine). As he kicks-off the now silenced conversation with something unfathomably unprofessional, he’ll make sure he drapes his arm around your shoulder as if you two are in this together somehow.
Or maybe it’s someone with seriously strong conspiracy theories who treats networking events like her own little recruitment rallies. She’ll find you and your conversing cohort of professionals. She’ll infiltrate your small, impressionable group, disguised as an innocent networker just looking to meet people in different industries. Then suddenly without warning, she’ll proclaim a declarative statement like, “Well maybe the world wouldn’t be such a wasteland if…” By the time she’s done handing out pamphlets and telling you to “open your eyes” that exit sign in the distance is now looking like a desert mirage.
While I’ve been involved in both of those incredibly awkward interactions, the more common scenario is that a conversation has naturally run its course, but you can’t exit yet for fear of being rude. Regardless of where your conversation lies on the intensity spectrum, if you need to exit gracefully, try one of these three methods to become an escape artist.
The Beginner exit strategy is the easiest to implement, and you’ve likely used this technique in past exit attempts. Hopefully you took my half glass of wine advice and can excuse yourself from your current conversation to get another drink. Or, simply excuse yourself to use the restroom. This escape strategy is easy to implement, but risky. There is a very good chance, for instance, that Mr. Crown Royal will accompany you to the bar. Now it definitely looks like you two are together. People will be talking about him the next day and someone will ask, “Yeah, but who was that friend he had with him?” Not a good look. Same flaw applies to the restroom exit attempt. You’ll learn that lesson the hard way when Ms. Conspiracy is slipping you a petition to sign from the next stall over.
The Intermediate exit strategy is the most common, because it applies in normal situations where either the conversation has lagged or you want to meet other people in the crowd. Simply ask the individual for their business card, and provide yours. Take a look at the card, mention that it’s been great to meet him/her, and if applicable let him/her know you’ll send a follow-up message. Two major notes here:
- Resist the very natural urge to ask additional questions after looking at someone’s business card if your goal is to exit the conversation. I’ve asked follow-up questions on many occasions, and cost myself another 20+ minutes. It’s a tough habit to break, because it almost seems rude not to say, “Oh, Sr. Planning Engineer… so what does that entail?” But in reality, if your goal is to exit the conversation, leave all open-ended questions for your follow-up meeting.
- Don’t explain why you’re leaving the conversation. This is another natural response. “Well it was great meeting you, I just need to um… go talk to, I mean check out the uh…” You don’t need an excuse. It may take some practice to build that confidence, but all you need to say is, “It was great meeting you; I’ll send you an email tomorrow and maybe we can meet-up soon. Enjoy the rest of your night.” (exit stage left)
Advanced (the Pass-Off)
Let’s go back to the Mr. Crown Royal or Ms. Conspiracy example. You can’t use the Beginner strategy through fear of having an unwanted follower. You can’t use the Intermediate strategy, because you have no desire to meet this person ever again and don’t want him/her to have your business card. So what should you do? Enter the Advanced exit strategy.
I learned this technique from my first mentor after college, and I still have trouble executing it perfectly. This technique works exactly as the name implies. Find a passerby, introduce him/her into your conversation, count 10 Mississippi, and then excuse yourself kindly but without warning. In the case of Mr. Crown Royal and Ms. Conspiracy, this technique is not very nice to the innocent bystander, but highly effective. And let’s be honest, you did your job entertaining those two; it’s time for someone else to clock-in for a while.
Give these techniques a chance next time you find yourself in a must-bail conversation. I’m curious – what other techniques have worked for you?
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