Informative, empathetic, meaningful conversations are the lifeblood of a rich social and business life. So you'd think that, since we talk to each other every single day, we'd have some inkling of when conversations really should end.

Joke's on us, apparently.

The study

In a study by Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, 133 participants were paired up and given a simple job--just talk to each other for any amount of time up to 45 minutes. They could decide for themselves when to stop, and when the conversations were over, the researchers hit them with a few questions.

The results showed that just 15 percent of people in the study left the conversation when they actually wanted to. About half of the participants wanted the conversation to end sooner, and about half wanted it to keep going longer. On average, the desired length of the conversation differed from what actually happened by 46 percent. Lastly, when participants had to guess whether their partner wanted to leave, they were right only 63 percent of the time. They thought it was only six minutes from when they wanted to leave to when their partner wanted to call it quits, when in reality it was 13 minutes.

The conclusion from the study was that, even while we might have a grasp of how much conversation we want, we're not very good at all about judging how much others want. We also tend not to know that we're off the mark.

So what does all this mean for you as a communicator?

Simply put, you probably don't really know when to stop talking, and your conversation partner probably doesn't, either. You're likely assuming when your partner wants to stop based on your own expectations, rather than really honing in on conversational cues that really show how the other person might think and feel.

This, of course, means you have to understand what some of those cues even are. Signals that a person might want to politely head for the door are:

  • fidgeting;
  • brief, closed responses to questions (especially one-word or monosyllabic replies);
  • acting distracted (e.g., looking at their watch, checking their phone);
  • standing up or otherwise physically distancing themselves with closed body language;
  • feet pointing away from you in preparation for an exit;
  • turning the conversation to other things they have to do;
  • summarizing the conversation;
  • longer pauses between responses; and
  • lack of eye contact.

And as you might guess based on the above, signals that a person might want to have more fun gabbing are":

  • relaxed, open body language and posture or leaning slightly toward you
  • offering you full attention;
  • asking additional questions;
  • good eye contact;
  • turning the conversation toward you;
  • no fidgeting; and
  • in-depth or extended responses.

As you try to navigate conversational situations, just remember that you don't have to stay in a situation you don't want to be in for appearance's sake. Don't waste their time or yours. You can thank the other person for the chat and just be clear about wanting or needing to move on. After all, conversation is a two-way street. The best talks are going to happen when you're both invested.

Published on: Dec 5, 2018