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I used to work on the phones and as a trainer at a telephone crisis support service. Of all the fantastic skills I learned and trained, my favourite is the beautiful and delicate art of ending a phone call.

Getting People To Talk

Before you can get people to stop talking, you need to know how to get them opening up. I don't want to go into a lot of detail in this writeup, but there are a few simple steps to follow when you want to get somebody talking:

  1. Ask open questions
    • These are the questions that have a long answer and can't be answered with a yes/no. "What happened next?" or "Tell me about your holiday?" are open questions.
  2. Shut up and listen
    • Silence is so powerful. I demonstrate this in training by asking, "How can you use silences in a conversation?" and then I - wait. I close my mouth and look around the room, and wait. Every single time, sooner than you would expect, somebody fills the silence, hesitantly at first, then as I continue to look interested and nod encouragingly, the floodgates open. The whole room buzzes with people exploring the idea that when you are quiet, you encourage the other person to speak. I nod and look interested, nothing more. Eventually somebody notices and - "Hey! You're doing it right now! You're being silent!" Q.E.D., baby!
  3. Say 'mm-hmm' and 'right, yes' occasionally to let them know you are still listening
    • When you are face to face, you can use your facial expression and body language to indicate that you are listening. It's a little harder over the phone. You have to make some kind of noise to let the other person know you haven't just put the phone down and wandered off. Mm-hmm, yes, right, oh!, really, wow.
  4. Reflect what the person said
    • This is how you tell the other person that you are listening. Simple is absolutely the key word here: use the fewest words you can, and then go back to being quiet. You can reflect back a feeling: "So I'm hearing that you feel frustrated," or "Wow, sounds like you are feeling thrilled!" Or you can reflect back a mini-summary of the content, or story, "So after you got on the bus you realised you had forgotten your ticket," or "It was the second customer who wanted the prawns, is that right?"

Notice that these techniques involve you taking a back seat and letting the other person mostly control the conversation.

Getting Off the Phone

The trick to ending a phone call is to reverse all those techniques you use to get people opening up and talking. You also need to know one very simple rule:

Once you get on the train, do not get off until it reaches the station!

So here are the steps for ending a phone call:

  1. Decide that you will end the phone call (in other words, get on the train) and take control of the conversation. Stop leaving silences. Start doing most of the talking.
  2. Tell the other person that it is time to end the conversation - this can happen early in the conversation, by saying, "I've got to go in ten minutes, but we can talk for that long." Or it can happen at the end, "I need to get going now, it's been great talking to you."
  3. Avoid questions, or use closed questions - those are the yes/no questions: "Did you eat breakfast?" or "Are you bringing the salad on Sunday?"
  4. Summarise what has been said during the conversation - this can help move the conversation from the present to the past - it's something that has been done, it is a finished thing. Keep it simple, "Well you've had a really big week, and it's very exciting that your team are playing in the finals. Thanks for giving me the potato salad recipe."
  5. Clarify any next steps to be taken by you or the other person - "I'll call you next week and you can tell me about the game. Don't forget to call your Mum and tell her, too."
  6. Say goodbye and hang up!

Come on Nemosyn, it isn't that easy!

You're right. It isn't that easy. There is a big difference between the theory and the practise. It is really easy to fall off the train and become discouraged. Let's have a look at some of the ways we fall off the train (in other words, how we lose control of the conversation):

1. Are you scared of telling the person that it's time to end the conversation? I am. Setting boundaries is hard, and it can feel like you're being rude. It helps to think of it as a polite thing you're doing. Do you want to have somebody hanging on the other end of the phone, rolling their eyes and wishing you would go away as their dinner goes cold? Of course not! You would rather the other person said, "My dinner is ready, I have to go now."

You can help yourself out by being as nice as possible: "I love talking with you, but I do have to go in five minutes, so we'd better start wrapping up."

2. Are you asking open questions? Once you decide to end the phone call, try not to get distracted by a new topic. If something important comes up, suggest discussing it next time. Unless it's an actual emergency, save it for another conversation.

3. Are you reflecting feelings? Again, once you decide to end the conversation, it's too late to explore feelings

4. Are you leaving big silences? This is where I fall off the train a lot. If a conversation has become boring, or too long, or I'm tired, I switch off and leave big long silences. But remember how powerful silences are? Silences encourage MORE talking, not less! I have to remind myself to talk talk talk talk until the call is finished, or I will still be sitting there saying, "mm-hmmm" in another hour!

5. Are you hesitating before the goodbye-and-hang-up? Again, this can feel like you're being rude. Or it can turn into the bye-bye ping pong: "bye!" "Yes, goodbye!" "Talk soon!" "Lovely, talk next time!" "Right, I'm going now!"... Does the other person enjoy this any more than you do? No way! Take the polite way out: say, "bye, thanks for talking!" and then hang up.

Research and Practise

Now that you have the basic ideas set out, you need to see how this works in the real world. Look around and see what other people are doing, what works or doesn't work, and copy the bits you like. 

  • Watch your doctor the next time you visit. Doctors have a very tight schedule and a good doctor is a master of ending the appointment. Watch the little tricks they use. They type some notes, then they click the mouse with an air of finality, print a piece of paper, and turn to face you. They hand you the paper, and tell you the next steps to take. Then they stand up, open the door, shake your hand, and off you go. I bet you don't even wait for them to open the door. You know the routine as well as they do, as soon as they print the piece of paper you know what to do, you're grabbing your bag and standing up.
  • Watch reporters and hosts on TV shows. They usually have some kind of sign-off. The reporter will signal the end of the story with their standard station line, "Peter Harvey, Canberra." The talk show host will have a snappy one-liner: "Say hello to your Mum for me!" The newsreader picks up her sheaf of papers, or does a full-face-to-camera statement and says goodnight.
  • If you are Australian, watch those rising sentence endings. Instead of raising your pitch? To sound like a question when it's just a statement? Keep the pitch low at the end.
  • Listen to your friends and colleagues. Do they sound rude when they end a conversation, or do they just sound polite and in control? Did you feel insulted when your friend told you he only had a few minutes to talk, or did you feel appreciative that he gave you his attention for those few minutes?
  • Be kind to yourself. It's normal to fall off the train, repeatedly. And very, very occasionally, you will find you just can't get that train to go anywhere. My aunt has dementia, and she lost all ability to have a focused conversation. Some days I just could not get her off the phone. Once, in the office where I worked as a trainer teaching people these exact skills, I was stuck on the phone for half an hour, with my delighted teammates giggling in the background and making little train noises, as I watched my lunchbreak tick slowly and painfully away.
  • Practise. Try out some techniques or phrases in front of the mirror, or write them down. If you have a job that involves a lot of phone calls with a particular set of people - clients or customers or colleagues - think about how you might add these techniques into the phone call. Perhaps it will help you to have a clock in front of you, and tell the person at the start of the call that you will need to hang up in fifteen minutes. Or you might try adding a summary and next steps into your call to help wind it up.
  • Ask me. I hardly ever bite and I'm happy to talk things over with you.

reQuest 2018

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