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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for guidance for ending conversations

Lynne Baab • Wednesday March 20 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for guidance for ending conversations

Imagine you’re at a gathering with a lot of people, perhaps coffee hour at church, a wedding reception, or an office party. You’ve chatted with several people, and you are now feeling tired and ready to go home. You look for the person you came with, and they’re in a conversation. You move toward them to check to see if they’re ready to leave.

A few steps before you get there, you are intercepted by someone who enjoys lengthy conversations. In the past, you have tried to listen lovingly and supportively to them. Still, you often find the one-sided conversations challenging. You’re tired and not able to come up with kind words to say that you don’t want to start a conversation, so the other person starts talking. After a few minutes, you realize you just can’t listen any more.

You wonder, is there an easy way to end a conversation?

Short answer: no. Many people find this difficult. But we can find patterns that work for us and show respect to our conversation partners. We can pray about this and ask for God’s help to become more comfortable ending conversations.

We find it hard to leave conversations because we don’t know how to “end an interaction, be honest, and be considered polite.” Those words come from an article in the Alantic by Joe Pinsker, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal who covers personal finance and happiness. He says we need a vocabulary for ending conversations. Without such a vocabulary, we make excuses. At a party, we might say we need to refresh our drink. Maybe we default to saying we need to get dinner on, even when we’re going to eat leftovers.

I invite you to ponder what you say so you can leave conversations at coffee hour, receptions, and parties. You may also want to ponder the other settings where you find it hard to end conversations. Phone or zoom calls? Dog parks? Encounters in the neighborhood? Running into an acquaintance at the supermarket? The break room at work?

Pinsker talks about those familiar words, “I’ll let you go.” I hear that often, as well as, “You must have things to do.” I never know what to say when I hear those statements that presume what I'm feeling. Does that mean the person feels finished with the conversation? Or does it mean they are afraid I’m getting bored? If I’m not ready to stop talking, should I say something like, “I’m happy to keep talking longer, but if you need to go, that’s fine”?

Pinsker cites a Harvard professor, Alison Brooks, who teaches about conversations. To end conversations, Brooks recommends: “I’ve loved this conversation. We have so much more to discuss, but I have to scoot—talk to you soon.” Sometimes, however, we didn’t love the conversation and we have no intention of initiating another conversation any time soon. So Brooks’s statement would be dishonest. Perhaps it would be a small white lie, but I’m more comfortable being honest when I end a conversation.

Brooks and others cite research indicating that most people are surprised by how much they enjoy unexpected conversations with strangers and acquaintances. That research suggests that we need to embrace conversations without the fear that we won’t know how to extricate ourselves. Pinsker writes, “Don’t avoid conversations, but also don’t hesitate to extract yourself from them when you run out of things to talk about. In order to heed that advice, Brooks encourages people to experiment with different tactics and find what she calls their ‘assertive-exit comfort zone.’”

Since reading Pinsker’s article a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been pondering and praying about my own “assertive-exit comfort zone.” I’ve been compiling things I say to end phone calls, zoom conversations, and coffee-hour chats. “I’ve got to go,” is my default. Many times I combine it with one of these:

  • “Great to catch up.”
  • “Thanks for this conversation. So interesting.”
  • “I’m happy we could talk.”
  • “I’m glad I could hear what’s going on with you these days.”
  • “I’ll be praying for you.”
  • “I need to cook dinner.” (Sometimes that’s true!)

As I look at my own life, I realize I also use tone of voice and body language to indicate I’m ready to leave a conversation. In a conversation where I'm physically present with the other person, I often begin to turn my body away from them as I say the words above. 

Months ago, I wrote a post about praying for our mirror neurons, something I had never before prayed for. In the same way, this post covers a topic I have never prayed for in general. Sure, I’ve been in conversations when I’ve prayed, “Help me leave, God.” But I’ve never prayed ahead of time that God would help me leave conversations without making excuses, without lying, and with kindness. So, beloved readers, I invite you to ponder your own current patterns and pray for God’s help and guidance to end conversations well.

God of timing, Lord of the rhythms of life, thank you for the people we talk with. Thank you for the richness of so many conversations. Guide us as we think about how to end conversations well. Guide us by your Holy Spirit into loving pacing of conversations. Give us kind words.

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Next week: wrap up of this series on friendship, loneliness, and prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab: Oban Presbyterian Church, Stewart Island, New Zealand.

Two weeks ago my series on empathy ended. In case you missed any of the empathy posts, here they are:

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