Exit Strategies For Non-Productive Workplace Conversations

Exit Strategies For Non-Productive Workplace Conversations

Studies have shown that in the workplace we generally cannot go for longer than 11 minutes without being needed by a coworker. That statistic seems fairly benign when I originally discovered it. Recollecting an average week at work, I know that that number is very realistic. However, when I distill down this simple statistic the challenge presents a very real obstacle to productivity and performance.

According to a 2016 LeadershipIQ survey, 71% of people report frequent interruptions when they’re working. Meanwhile, only 29% say that they can successfully block out everything else while working. Here is some interesting reality…when people get interrupted frequently, there’s only a 44% chance that they’ll leave their day feeling like “today was a really successful day.” By contrast, when people can block out interruptions at work, there’s a 67% chance they’ll leave feeling like “today was a really successful day.” That’s a huge disparity in sense of accomplishment just based on whether we get interrupted frequently or we can effectively block out interruptions and maintain our productivity throughout our work day. Additionally, according to a  New York Daily News article, “Gossip Makes Up 80% Of Our Conversations“. What that means is during a 30 minute conversation only six minutes of dialogue contains any substance. That is potentially 24 minutes we could lose to a non-productive or counter-productive dialog. I don’t know who has time for that kind of nonsense during their day.

When you’re trying to focus and either start or get through a project or assignment it’s nearly impossible to maintain a cogent and constructive train-of-thought when you’re besieged with interruptions.

I have always been extremely focused on my own productivity and the productivity of the people on my team(s). In a traditional leadership role, when I start working with a new/inherited team of individuals, I immediately develop  and support a focus on the time-management competencies of my people. We discuss effective communication, we implement a zero-tolerance policy around gossip, establish a system to indicate when a person or group is involved in a project and cannot be interrupted, and we quickly weed out people who don’t want to be a part of our highly-productive, cohesive, collaborative, creative group.

I am a big proponent of being kind, considerate, authentic, and approachable – always – and I speak and write a lot about productivity and performance. When I cover the effects of interruptions at work and non-productive dialogs – I get a lot of emails and direct messages on LinkedIn and Twitter when I post about only being available for beneficial and rewarding dialogs and interactions. People frequently want to know how to successfully and nicely extract themselves from counter-productive conversations with colleagues and bosses. My friends, family, and close acquaintances always know that always have an exit strategy prepared. Not just at work – but in less-than-exciting social encounters or relationships – but, an exit that always concludes the event|interaction in a very respectful and positive way.

Anatomy of Communication

We have all read|heard the frequently quoted statistic on nonverbal communication is that 93% of all daily communication is nonverbal where only 7% of communication is made through words. Popular magazines, business books, speakers frequently quote this specific number. Being curious I wanted to know where that study originated, it is the research of  Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, originally printed in 1972. Digging down a little further there are two sub-statistics in the 93% “non-verbal communication” statistic that are worthwhile knowing – 38% through vocal elements and 55% through nonverbal elements [facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc]. In today’s connected and electronic world, I am sure there is a variation or update on this reporting from 1972 but person-to-person interaction, I am sure it is still – probably – fairly close.

Gracefully & Respectfully Exiting A Conversation At Work

Workplace friendships have a cultural and personal impact for everyone. There are benefits that can be measured and shown to benefit colleagues who work and develop a healthy team and individual camaraderie. These relationships carry a high level of social capital and ensuring that you are protecting the possibility of relationships when you have to extract yourself from conversation. Some of my most enduring and wacky friendships have been with colleagues and not approaching this situation with kindness and candor can bruise – potentially – great friendships and connections.

BE DIRECT: This is always my favorite approach because it’s honest. Acknowledge that you both are – likely – very busy and that you have a pressing assignment|meeting|appointment.  Thank them for a nice conversation and walk away. Abandon any forced platitudes [THIS is the difficult part] you instinctively want to add, “talk to you later”, “catch up with you later”, or “find me later”. This leaves the opportunity open for them to interrupt you at a later time or day.

LET’S CATCH UP LATER: When you genuinely enjoy the person who you are speaking with but need to focus on work, let them know that you want to give them the full attention they deserve but you can’t right now with a deadline looming, suggest that you grab lunch or coffee later or that you can catch up after work.

DEALING WITH AN OFFICE YENTA: Letting the office gossips know that you are at work to be productive, create a positive space, and that you are fully available for productive interactions and problem-solving but you haven’t the time or interest in detail about anyone’s obstacles or issues unless they seek to be of service to that colleague. Publicly letting a gossip know that you do not have time or interest in engaging in those types of conversations – word will spread.

WITH A VENDOR AT THE CONCLUSION OF A MEETING: I get this question a lot. Most sales people are amazing at conversation and can continue indefinitely – I envy that about them – but there comes a time when we do have to continue with our day and remove ourselves from the dialog. Let them know you appreciated the time they spent with you and the company. Let them know that you are on LinkedIn and that you are happy to connect with them to keep up with their business ventures. Let them know you have another meeting or engagement and offer to walk them to the elevator or to the threshold.

A RANDOM INCONVENIENT CONVERSATION: Let the speaker know that you are sorry to you have leave the conversation but that you enjoyed learning about them and ask for a business card [yes, people still carry these] if it is someone you’d like to keep in touch with.

Words Of Caution: Though it may be easier,  I do not advocate resorting to lying to get out of a conversation. So many people default to excuses to exit a conversation, such as the need to refresh a drink at an event or a party or they need to powder their nose. Yes, it gets you out of the immediate situation, for sure, but then you leave yourself open to the fact of them tracking you down and believing you to be interested enough to continue the conversation. I am a firm believer that it reflects poorly on you when you utilize “little white lies” to spare someones feelings. People can see through excuses – generally. Your reputation will always stay intact when you are honest.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | beth@excellencein-retail.com [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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