How to Politely Stop a Conversation

Man sitting in chair talking on phone.

One of my favorite aspects of airports, parks, and shopping malls is the opportunity that these venues offer for people-watching, and similarly, one of my favorite coffee shop attributes is the space they provide for people-listening. 

While some people might refer to this as eavesdropping (which has a negative connotation, don’t you think?), I figure that if someone is having an exchange in an enclosed public space, they are open to the fact that curious ears may be tapping in. 

Recently, I overheard one side of a phone conversation that I can’t stop thinking about. 

A middle-aged-or-so woman had been speaking into her cellphone with a friendly, familiar tone of voice (I could imagine that she was chatting with a sister or close friend) for about 10 minutes when all of a sudden her countenance shifted. While her tone remained warm, it took on a no-nonsense quality as well as she firmly stated, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I don’t want to hear about this. I know you have a tough relationship with this person, and I want you to know that I am praying for you, but I can’t listen to this.” 

RELATED: Taking Time for Myself: How Space Can Strengthen Relationships

Is it heavy-handed to say that I was absolutely flabbergasted by her declaration? Perhaps. But given that I’ve often found myself amid conversations that I don’t want to be a part of yet never quite know how to stop without seeming rude, I was awed and delighted to overhear this example of kind yet firm boundary-setting. 

What’s more, after drawing her boundary, the woman in the coffee shop and her phone companion resumed their friendly banter about gardening, children, and the weather for an additional half an hour! 

While I know almost no details about the context of their conversation — the nature of their relationship, the history that led to the boundary setting, etc. — I don’t need to know more to have learned something from the encounter: It is possible to cut someone off in a polite and effective manner without sabotaging the relationship, and I can put this takeaway into action in my own life. 

To be clear, I’m not talking about silencing an elderly woman at my church as she tells me all the details of her knee pain, or putting a stop to any conversation having to do with professional sports (not my thing, like, at all). I’m talking about refusing to listen to gossip that makes my skin crawl, or one family member bad-mouthing another or poorly informed but highly acerbic hot takes on politics and religion. 

For instance, there is a certain person in my life with whom my conversations often take a turn from positive to poisonous in the blink of an eye. One moment we are talking about current favorite recipes or books that we’ve recently enjoyed, and the next minute I’m listening to a mean-spirited diatribe about her relatives and friends, many of whom I know and care for. 

Up until now, my approach to dealing with these tone shifts has been to refrain from participating in the verbal bashing without actively disengaging from it (think, a lot of non-committal but open-ended monosyllabic responses: “hmmm”s and “okay”s and “I see”s). 

RELATED: How To Set Boundaries, and What To Do When The Other Person Pushes Back

My coffee shop example highlighted for me that there is more that I can be — and should be — doing to extricate myself from these conversations. I think that disengagement is an important move to make, for several reasons. 

First, it will stop a hurtful tirade from happening. I would hope that if someone heard this person talking about me in the way that I hear her talking about other friends and relatives they would say something to put a halt to the negativity. 

Secondly, it will protect me from resentment. I don’t like listening to this person talk in the way that she does, and I often leave our conversations feeling mad at her and disgusted with myself. Stopping the conversation in its tracks will protect me from these feelings. 

Finally, cutting off toxic talk creates space for more fruitful discussion to occur. Like the woman in the coffee shop seamlessly redirected her conversation to talk of gardens and her kids’ summer jobs, I can shift our conversation to talking about things that will strengthen our connection or enlighten and uplift us in some other way.

Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying that small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. Perhaps the first step in making my mind great, then, is politely stopping a less-than-helpful conversation. I have no plans to give up eavesdropping, but this I can and plan to do.

Originally published August 10, 2022.

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