“Have you got five minutes?”

Only, we all know it’s never five minutes and it’s usually asked for right when we’re about to race off to a meeting, are on deadline for an important task, or focussed on an important task.

For many of us (particularly the people pleasers and passive communicators) the yes response can be automatic.

And then we kick ourselves.

As the conversation drags on, our stress levels rise. We’re only half listening because we’re distracted worrying about how we can quickly wrap up the conversation, working out how late we’re going to be to our next appointment, and frustrated that ‘five minutes’ is clearly not going to be anywhere near enough time.

Some of us will silently seethe while plastering a fake smile on our face.

Others will become impatient listeners; interrupting or trying to interject to cut the story short. This can feel uncomfortable and rude – both for you and the other person, particularly if the conversation has quickly taken a deep turn.

So how can you handle this better? What strategies can you use to manage these bail-ups in a polite, professional and empathetic way?

Here are three tips:

  1. Be upfront

Make it clear how much time you have when the person first asks, “Have you got five minutes?” or “Can we have a quick chat?”. If you have limited time, tell them that. You might say, “I can give you three minutes but then I have to leave for a meeting.”

By signposting your availability at the start, it is easier to exit the conversation when you need to without feeling rude.

If you genuinely don’t have time to speak at all, you are far better to say this than to cut someone off midway through their point when they weren’t expecting it

2. Give them a choice

Once you’ve told the person how much time you have, give them the option of having the conversation briefly now or scheduling time later.

You might say: “I can give you five minutes now, or we can schedule time to speak later this afternoon if you think it’ll take longer. Which would you prefer?”

If you’re distracted, tell them that: “If we have the conversation now, I’m not going to be able to give you my full attention and I know this is important to you. Did you want to do it now or make time later when I can listen properly?”

Put the ball in their court. If they decide to proceed, they are clear on the terms and less likely to dive into a detailed or deep topic.

3. Exit with grace

If you follow tips one and two and the person is still speaking with no sign of slowing down after five minutes, interject politely with assertiveness and warmth. Try, “I’m sorry, but I am going to have to wrap this up now.”

Depending on where the conversation is at you may close out by asking: “What’s the main point you need me to take away?” or “Do I have all the info you need me to have, or do we need to discuss this further?”

If it’s clear you need more time, suggest you continue the conversation later, or better yet – schedule in a specific time.

Good luck and let me know how you go.

Leah.

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Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator, mentor and author of the book Soft is the New Hard: How to Communicate Effectively Under Pressure.