Research Says, “No!”

I’d worked for public relations agencies for almost 10 years before anyone thought to send me for training on how to do sales. (A number of years before this, I’d already been expected to bring in new business. Go figure.)

One of the topics the instructor covered was knowing when you’d actually made the sale. After a number of roleplays with other participants, I remember him shaking his head and saying, “I’ve already said yes—and still you’re talking. Now I want to say no!”

This Is a Common Problem

Research shows that conversations rarely end when both people want them to. Part of the reason for this is that we are poor judges of when others are ready to move on.

Adam Mastroianni and colleagues at Harvard University wanted to take a more scientific approach to the dynamics of talk. Their first study involved an online quiz of 806 participants. They were asked about the duration of their most recent conversation.

Most of these chats had happened with a significant other, family member or friend. Each person was asked if there was a point when they were ready for the conversation to stop, and then to estimate the difference between this and when the talk really ended.

Then they did another experiment in their lab. Researchers split 252 people into pairs of strangers. They were told to spend between one and 45 minutes talking about anything they liked.

Afterward, researchers asked participants two questions: 1) when would you have liked the conversation to have ended, and 2) guess when your partner would have liked it to finish.

Stop Already!

It turns out just 2% of conversations ended at the time both parties wanted. Only 30% of the chats finished when one person wished them to. About 50% of the time, both people wanted the exchange to be shorter. However, the amount of time each chose was different.

People in both studies agreed that the time they wanted to spend speaking was about half of what the real talk took. Researchers were surprised to discover that people rarely reported being held hostage in a conversation. In fact, in 10% of talks, both people wished the exchange had gone on longer. And 31% of the time, at least one of the two wished the interaction would continue.

Most people were bad at figuring out what their partner wanted. When guessing at the point the other person wished to stop talking, they were off by about 64% of the total conversation length.

Are We All Just Gas Bags?

This shows we’re poor at guessing how engaged others are in having conversations with us—for longer as well as shorter times. To avoid being the one who keeps talking when we should have stopped, use these strategies.

Stick with the hourglass. Agree upon a timeframe in advance. Maybe it’s a 50-minute team meeting. Or a 30-minute Zoom session. Or a 15-minute check-in call. Setting the goals for this conversation and an end time in advance gives people comfort. And, if you finish early, people love knowing they’ve gotten some “free” time back.

Be present to win. Yes: it can be hard to read body language in the virtual world. But pay attention to the physical and verbal cues the other person is giving to show how engaged she is in the conversation. If she seems distracted, or isn’t tracking with your points, be willing to schedule another short session to finish. (Remember: she likely wants to spend 50% of the time on this that you do.)

Ask. Since we’re such bad guessers, don’t even try. Be direct. “Are there any points we’ve discussed that you’d like to have more details on?” “Have we reached all the goals you set for this conversation?” “What can I do to make this the best use of your time right now?” This could be the rare 10% when someone wants to continue the conversation. Let them tell you.

At its best, a conversation (or meeting) is an expression of mutual cooperation. People exchanging ideas to move a project or relationship forward. Now you understand that knowing when to stop is not a skill most people (and probably you) have. Create ways to raise your own awareness. Stop talking while they still want to say “yes.”