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You’re Having Conversations All Wrong, Harvard Research Shows. Here’s How to Do It Right

Do you want people to enjoy talking with you? You should probably end your conversations more quickly than you do. Most people stay in conversations longer than they want to for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings, new research shows. In fact, in about two thirds of conversations, whether between strangers or loved ones, at least one person wants out well before the exchange ends. Sometimes both people want to stop, but they keep on talking anyway, because neither wants to cause offense.

That’s the finding from two recent experiments by a reearch team headed by Adam Mastroianni, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard. In one, 252 strangers were paired up for conversations that could be as short or as long as they wished, up to 45 minutes. In the other, 806 online volunteers were asked to think about a recent conversation with someone they were close to. In both cases, more than two thirds of participants reported that the conversation had gone on longer than they wanted. Some participants thought the conversation was too short and wished they could have kept talking. How often were both people satisfied with the length of their conversation? Only 2 percent of the time.

There are a couple of things we can learn from this research. The first is that most of us are very, very bad at knowing whether the person we’re talking with wants the conversation to continue or end, possibly because that person is trying to be nice. The second is that most conversations go on too long at least for one participant, and sometimes both.

If you’re an entrepreneur or a business leader, this is highly useful information because it’s a business asset if people to enjoy talking with you. The last thing you want is to keep a potential customer, investor, partner, or employee stuck in a conversation and secretly longing for escape. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to avoid having this happen.

1. Stop waiting for a sign.

Even if the person you’re talking to wants to end the conversation, he or she probably won’t let you know. And you’re probably very bad at figuring it out on your own. So stop trying. Relax and enjoy the conversation, if you find it enjoyable. And if you’re not enjoying it, don’t feel obliged to stay.

2. End conversations sooner rather than later.

Since you likely can’t tell what the other person is thinking, you have no way of knowing whether he or she would prefer to keep talking or to stop. “So you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less,” Mastroianni told Scientific American. 

Of course, you don’t want to be rude, and you shouldn’t take off in the middle of someone telling you a story. But there are many graceful and polite ways to end a when you’re ready. Here are 11 ways to end a conversation that work in many situations.

3. Choose conversations with natural time limits.

What do I mean by that? Consider walking meetings, for example, an approach that Steve Jobs favored. Not only is a walking meeting a great way to have a thoughtful conversation while also getting exercise and fresh air, it’s obviously finite. You walk the circuit around a park or a lake, and when you get back to where you started, the conversation automatically ends. There’s no reason for anyone to feel slighted.

A similar approach, if you meet someone in a public place, is to park at a parking meter. When you leave, it’ll be because you don’t want to get a ticket, not because you don’t like the person you’re talking with. If you and the other person have your conversation over, say, a cup of coffee, the conversation can naturally end when both cups are empty, and you can also finish your own drink as a polite way to indicate that you’re ready to go.

However you choose to do it, consider ending conversations a bit earlier than you currently do. The other person probably won’t mind. And if you plan another conversation in the future, chances are he or she will be looking forward to it.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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