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How to Escape an Awkward Networking Conversation

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in an awkward conversation at a party with no escape. After several painful minutes of talking about the weather and the latest football game, you finally blurt out, “I have to go to the bathroom!” and quickly run away.

You can find yourself in the same situation at a networking event. Except at these, you have no choice but to act polite and professional, because important career relationships may be at stake. Conversations can hit just as hard of a dead end, and without having a clear exit strategy, you may waste valuable networking time.

“The secret to exiting an awkward networking conversation is the same as the secret to getting out of anything you don’t want to do: preparation,” says Robby Slaughter, author of “The Unbeatable Recipe for Networking Events.” Following this sage advice, here are some tactics for escaping those uncomfortable exchanges and coming out with your career connections intact.

 The bait and switch

Want to get out of a conversation while still appearing helpful? Try handing the person off to someone else who is better suited to chat. “Use the downtime in the conversation to ask the person what they are hoping to get from the networking event, and facilitate an introduction to someone else who can help them,” says Kristi Hedges, executive coach, leadership development consultant and author of “The Power of Presence.” “For example, if they’re looking for a job, introduce them to a recruiting friend or someone who has just found a job. When they are situated, you can warmly excuse yourself in order to catch up with some other folks there.”

The concerned conversationalist

When you’ve reached the point of no return in a networking conversation, make ending the conversation about the other person — how you must be keeping him from other important people, places or events. But be sure to close with a clear parting statement so there’s less of a chance for lingering.

Sheila C. Sheley, president of Sheley Marketing, suggests using one of these lines:

  • “You probably want to find a seat before they start the presentation. I hope you enjoy it.”
  • “You should get in that line for the bar before it gets too long, and I should go return a call from my office. Nice chatting with you.”
  • “I’m sure there are other people here that you want to meet, so I’ll let you continue your networking. Have a nice evening.”

The open-ended closer

Another conundrum that comes along with networking is the inevitable exchange of business cards and the promise to keep in touch. But what if you don’t really want to reconnect?  “If the other person wants to continue talking later, but you aren’t interested, sometimes you can respond as if you assume it is a general expression of interest and not a specific request,” Sheley says. “You could respond with something like, ‘Yes, it was nice talking to you, too. I’m sure we’ll run into each other at another one of these events,’ or ‘Perhaps our paths will cross again soon and we can talk more about that.’”

 The “It’s not you, it’s me” approach

The risk you run with “the open-ended closer” is that you’re still leaving the door slightly open for another conversation. If you want to slam it shut, try placing the blame on your schedule or current career situation.

Slaughter gives these two examples of how to be direct with your rejection:

  • “I appreciate your offer to meet up for coffee. But I respect you and want to be honest: I already have a trusted partner who works in real estate to whom I send all of my referrals. I’m sure there’s someone in your network who has total confidence in your professionalism and does the same for you.”
  • “I’d love to expand my network, but I am completely booked up right now with current projects and am not taking any new meetings for the next six months. If you’d like to reach out to me in six months, perhaps we can get a cup of coffee then?”

The written rejection

Meghan Ely, networking event regular and owner of OFD Consulting, a niche marketing firm for the wedding industry, has had success with this trick: “If the person wants to continue the conversation at another time but I have no interest, I will still exchange cards if they insist but will ask them to contact me directly. If they do reach out, this gives me the opportunity to be a bit more eloquent when it comes to my approach. With these scenarios, I would simply be polite but firm and say something along the lines of how I appreciate them reaching out, but I don’t think my skill set/area of expertise, etc. would be of benefit to them.”

The phone call fake out

This is likely a last-resort tactic, but if you’ve tried everything else and you still can’t escape, you can always pull the fake phone call from a friend. “You can always recruit a confederate who knows that you are trying to escape a situation,” Slaughter says. “They can call you on the phone and pull you into an ‘important conversation.’ Your ally can also rescue you directly: ‘Mind if I borrow Fred for a minute? He’s needed on the other side of the room.’

Debra Auerbach, CareerBuilder Writer

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