How to Make a Graceful Exit

Is your last impression as important as your first impression?

Most definitely, YES!

On this blog, I talk a lot about your first impression, but today I want to talk about the undervalued, under-discussed and under-appreciated art of the graceful exit.

Mega-Awkward Story

Has this ever happened to you? I was at a networking event chatting with a potential client. It was going superbly! We were laughing about crazy uncles and reminiscing about favorite family vacation spots. He handed me his card and said to give him a call to talk about a lunch speaking event on lie detection -- hooray! And then... it was time to say goodbye. The conversation was wrapping up, but neither of us quite knew how to end it, so we teetered around the impending exit saying things like, "ok, great" and "sounds good" and "ok, great" again. Eventually we fumbled for a last handshake and then began to move off in the exact same direction. Bah! Did I blow it? Did my horrible exit ruin my graceful entrance?

The Science

This story inspired me to write a post on the science of an effective and graceful exit. Don't get me wrong-making a grand entrance and a sweeping first impression is super important for memorability, but the graceful exit is where the real magic is.

Your exit is how you make a lasting impression.

The importance of the last impression boils down to what's called the Primacy and Recency effect. Research has found that people tend to remember the first and last moments best. This is the reason I talk so much about our first impressions and is why I am now exploring the last impression.

How to Make a Grand Exit:

Whether we're talking about a networking event, a date or even a phone call, you want to end as strong as you start. Here are my favorite ending tips for you:

1. Your Cool Down

Just like you warm-up for the start of a race, you have to cool down at the end of a good workout. Your interaction also needs a cool down. This helps you avoid the incredibly rude and abrupt:

Cut and Run

The cut and run is when someone doesn't know how to make a graceful exit so they blurt out something like, "Ok bye!" and scurry off before you know which end is up.

Don't be that person! You want to warm-up your goodbye by cooling down your conversation. You can do this both nonverbally and verbally. Read on for how...

2. Nonverbal Cues

Our brains subconsciously pick-up on nonverbal cues, so you can slowly cue up your partner or your group with body language signs to let their brain pick-up on an impending end. These cues are also a polite way to signal to someone you need (or want) to wrap up a conversation.

3. Use Your Toes

We don't realize it, but we point our toes in the direction towards where we want to go. I can often guess office crushes by looking at where people are pointing their toes while they stand around and schmooze during office parties. If you want to disengage, slowly point your toes towards the door. Their brain will often pick up on this signal and either they copy you or begin to speak more quickly. Try it -- it's crazy! Don't forget some other nonverbal cues I mention in these specific situations you might find yourself needing to exit:

4. Distancing

Distancing behavior is when our body or head moves away from the person or object in front of us. Sometimes you see people turn their head far to one side, take a step back or lean back in their chair. These are all distancing cues which signal to us that someone is disengaging (this can be both positive and negative). I typically advise people to avoid distancing behavior during interactions because it shows a lack of connection, BUT it is a great way to tee-up an exit because the other person can pick up on the cues. To politely distance:

  • Point your toes out and also pivot your body slightly out so you are at a 90 degree angle or wider (not directly facing them).
  • Turn your head slightly towards the door or the food table as they speak while still keeping eye contact (this makes it less rude).
  • Take a small step back or lean back in your chair.

5. A Drone Emergency

A droner is a conversation that just goes on and on and on. They either have a never-ending story or you just can't quite seem to wrap up the conversation. 2 more specific nonverbal exit cues you can use in emergencies only:

  • Overhead Gaze: As they speak, look over their head as if you are looking for someone. I am cringing as I write this because it is so rude, BUT this is better than the abrupt Cut and Run.
  • Watch Check: You can look down at your watch as a cue for them to wrap it up (again cringe-worthy, but better than interrupting).
  • Phone Check: You can also pull out your phone and check it for time or messages. Especially if you don't have a watch, this is a pretty obvious indicator to the other person that your mind is elsewhere and you need to wrap it up.

6. Verbal Cues

You can also subtly signal the end of a conversation by steering the conversation topics to the future. To tee yourself up for a conversation ender (see the next point) try bringing up the following topics:

  • Future Mention: Ask them if they have any plans this weekend. Or ask them about their plans after the event if you have an event early in the day. This puts them in future mode.
  • Follow-Up: Do you want to get a coffee on the books? Do you want to connect on LinkedIn or intro them to someone? Bring it up to signify a closure.
  • Needs: Did you forget to each lunch? Need to go check-in with the host? Mention some needs to cue up an easy leave.

7. Conversation Enders

Here are my favorite conversation enders -- they are the polite, graceful one-liners you can use just like conversation starters. Be sure to always pair them with a warm smile and a handshake to add nonverbal engagement to your exit.

#1: Have a wonderful time with your xyz weekend plans!

#2: Here's my business card. Great to meet you!

#3: It was lovely chatting with you. I will be sure to ___ (follow-up item mentioned).

#4: Good luck on your ___project coming up____.

#5: I had fun talking to you! I will be sure to shoot you an email.

#6: I'm going to get a drink refill -- it's been a pleasure!

#7: I'm so glad we met. Thanks for sharing that story. It's been great!

#8: I'm going to say hello to the host. Great speaking to you!

#9: I promised myself I would get at least 3 cards tonight, so I'm going to make some rounds -- wish me luck!

#10: I would love your business card for the future. It was nice meeting you!

All of these can be used to seamlessly and un-awkwardly make a graceful exit for BOTH of you. This is a gift to them (so they don't get surprised by your leaving and they get a chance to meet more people) and great for you because you end on a positive note.

On a positive note now, I would like to point my toes towards the exit, lean back in my chair and tell you -- thank you so much for reading this article. It's always a pleasure to have you here!