While we tend to have a shared understanding of how to start a conversation — we might ask a coworker about their weekend, call a friend for advice, or comment on the weather — it can be difficult to find a natural way to end what’s been started, especially if a topic is dragging on, or if we feel socially cornered. Some of us will invent an excuse to leave, like a phone call we need to take or a task that’s waiting for us. And others might find ourselves feeling the anticipation (even stress and anxiety) when we start to sense a conversation winding down but don’t know how to navigate our way out of it.
Conversations with others, both those we know well and total strangers, happen constantly. And it’s not just our spoken conversations that can get caught in awkward endings — it can be difficult to know how to end a text conversation or e-mail, too. For an easier way out, we can turn to mindfulness.
We often misjudge when others want a conversation to end
Staying present helps us close interactions in a thoughtful way
Try 7 meditations for mindfully ending conversations
When we interact with others, we try to take the other person’s feelings into account. Sometimes, that thoughtfulness and politeness can keep us rooted to an interaction for fear of offending the other person, even when we’re ready to move on. Or we get so caught up searching for a moment to seize upon to remove ourselves from the conversation that we stop listening to what the other person is saying altogether.
But while we might feel like our conversation partner could continue on forever, it turns out we’re not great at judging when the other person is ready to end. One study found that less than 2% of conversations end at the time when both people want it to — between those who know each other, and even between strangers. Instead, we end up staying in conversations far longer than we’d like, and we find excuses to find our way out. According to Robert Feldman, author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, making up an excuse suggests that the “ideal” conversation would never end, a concept we can all agree is certainly not true.
So how can we remove pressure from ending a conversation at the exact right time while still taking the other person’s feelings into account? We can approach conversations with mindfulness, using it to end in a more thoughtful way.
The key to ending a conversation mindfully is to approach it mindfully in the first place. What does that mean? Well, mindfulness is the ability to stay present, engaged in the moment, fully attentive on the task or person in front of us. That’s obviously important when communicating with people. As Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, says: “The skill is really noticing when we’re distracted, and in doing that, then being present for that person.”
Let’s face it, we’ve all been there, at work, at home, or at a party, when someone is talking to us and our mind, almost on its own, drifts off. It might be because we’re easily distracted. It might be because we’re restless or bored. But mindfulness is a social skill that can help us limit these tendencies. How do we become better at this? By training the mind to be more still…through meditation.
If we practice meditation regularly, our levels of distraction will greatly diminish. Instead of training in distractedness (by not meditating), we are training in awareness moment by moment (by meditating). And so, when in a conversation, we are present, actively listening, without letting our mind wander or fast forward to what we want to say. Instead, we really hear what the other person is saying and respond in kind. That’s what mindfulness gives us — the ability to show up for others.
Meditation helps us see how easily distracted our mind is, and so sitting with the mind teaches us to anchor ourselves to the present moment. Once we are mindfully in a conversation, we can adopt a few tips for mindfully ending the conversation.
Even mindful conversations must come to a close. There is always a natural end point which we can recognize and, with practice, we can step in and out of conversations with grace and ease. We can use these strategies when we’re ready to move on from talking with someone:
In a mindful conversation, we’re not just listening to the other person, but also to ourselves. When we feel that we’re ready to move on, we can be honest with the other person. To show them we care and how we valued our time talking, we can say something like: “I’m feeling tired. Can we catch up later this week?” Most of all, telling someone how we feel is authentic. Whether we use this tactic as a way to end small talk or a phone conversation with a friend, it’s an honest and human way to exit.
When we share that we’re grateful for the person we’re speaking with, we show that we value the relationship. To ensure that the other person knows we’ve enjoyed the conversation and would like to connect again another time, we can end with a line like: “I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. Let’s talk again soon.” Or we can reflect an aspect of the conversation back to them — something that stands out — and say how much we loved hearing that story.
Sometimes, we’re the ones who want to keep talking, but it’s clear that our conversation partner is ready to end, whether we notice their eyes darting around the room or if they keep checking their watch. If we’re looking for how to end a conversation politely in this situation, we can show that we’re aware of the other person’s state by saying: “I know you have a lot going on, so I’ll let you go.” Or we can quickly wrap things up and move along graciously.
When we’re in conflict with another person, it can be hard to know how to end a difficult conversation. Sometimes, that might just mean a temporary end so we can take a break and continue talking later when we feel calmer, as recommended by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. and author. To let the other person know we’re committed to resolving a tense situation, we can say: “I need to take a break and talk about this later when I feel calmer.”
Written communication like texts or emails makes us available for seemingly endless conversations, and it can be tricky to set boundaries. But ending a conversation isn’t ending a relationship, and we can close a text thread by setting up time to talk in the future with something like: “I’d love to talk another time. Can we get together soon?”
Looking for more meditations for closing an interaction in a thoughtful way? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses and single meditations on mindful conversations, including:
Mind, Body, Speech video. Recognize that they’re all connected.
Listening to Others meditation. Realize when you’re distracted and gently bring your attention back to the person speaking.
Focus meditation. Bring out the innate focus within you.
Relationships course. Focus less on self-critical chatter to achieve greater harmony with others and within yourself.
Difficult Conversations meditation. Develop a calmer, more patient mindset.
Managing Conflict meditation. Learn how to create the environment for a calm, productive conversation.
Bring Yourself Back video. Create more mental space from worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.
When we bring more mindfulness into our conversations, we might realize that it’s not about the endings at all. Maybe we’ll find that we can develop richer relationships with others when we focus on listening and being present with them from the start. When it’s time for a conversation to end, we know that we’ll pick back up the next time, from a new, deeper place.