Six months ago, I decided to keep all my appointments: lunches, drinks, dinners, “coffees,” conference calls. I didn’t cancel. I didn’t postpone. I didn’t flake. If I said I was going to do the thing at a certain time, I did the thing at the certain time. In defiance of the Age of Cancellation, I simply stuck to the original plan. I stayed in.
It was after the fifth or sixth meeting that should’ve been canceled or postponed that I broke down. A staunch dedication to your schedule isn’t a noble effort -- it’s a stunt.
Things change. Minds change. Professional relationships change. Breakfast meetings change -- from pleasant abstraction to crushing reality. In business, flexibility is as important as follow-through.
My journey had the opposite effect of what I’d intended. I now believe more firmly than ever in the right to get out of meetings and favors. But it’s important to get out in a way that suggests that it’s better for all involved. Because it is.
How to get out of a meeting
When you give an excuse for missing a meeting, the value of your excuse must be equal to or greater than the value of the meeting you’re missing. But you have to use the prism of the person who invited you to the meeting. You have to guess at what they think is important. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to do this thing instead of your thing because this thing is really important.” You have to say, “I’m going to do this thing instead of your thing because it’s important for both of us that I do this other thing.” Getting out of a meeting is about placing your flakery in context -- and the context is always The Company.
The key is candor, says Kurt Taylor, founder and CEO of Wilmington, N.C.-based Next Glass, which analyzes the compounds in beer and wine to match taste buds to flavor profiles. “Sure, they might find it a little strange that you didn’t come up with some white lie to kind of shield their feelings, but that’s a very short-term view of looking at it.”
Bailing out the right way involves asking for a blessing. You’re not just telling people what you think is important. You’re asking them to understand it. You’re not asking for permission, but you are asking for approval.
How to get out of doing a favor
The first rule of favors is to never immediately agree to do a favor. You can say, “I’ll take a look”; “Happy to consider it”; “Honored to be asked.” But never: “Sure.”
“Fight the urge to just answer yes right away because you’re under pressure. Or no. Don’t feel like you need to fill in that gap with chatter. There’s power in a pause,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and founder of executive leadership company The Protocol School of Texas in San Antonio. The pause is setting the stage for a possible getting out. By pausing, you’re saying, I don’t just throw around favors. Favors matter.
Since the subtext of a favor is more significant than the favor itself, favor-refusal demands a response longer than the request. That response should be highly specific and deeply principled.
When you’re refusing a favor, make eye contact. Be accountable. Refusing a favor involves a certain level of embarrassment on the other end. It amounts to total rejection -- unless you curb the rejection with evidence that you’ve really thought about it.
How to get out of an awkward conversation
Nobody is better at getting out of conversations than bartenders. They’re prisoners of customer chatter. Bartenders might as well be sitting behind plateglass with a phone at their ear and a guard behind them.
“You maybe have 14 to 20 feet to move away from them,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner and head bartender at Leyenda, a great, great Latin cocktail bar in Brooklyn. “You have to find a way to gracefully exit the conversation. I want to make sure that they continue to want to come to my bar, even if I find them to be aggressively boring.”
The key is to exit in a way that doesn’t seem like an exit. Think of yourself as a bartender who has other customers to take care of.
Says Mix: “What always happens is someone tries to talk to me about cocktails incessantly. And the only thing they want to talk about is what bitters I’m using, so I try to divert attention to something else. It’s a win-win, because we can either talk about something that I care about, or it can diffuse the situation.” In any case, Mix says, it stops the “trajectory of their diatribe.”
Now, if you want to get away from a conversation altogether, here’s a template:
- Express happiness that the conversation occurred.
- Repeat something the other person said as a way of paying a small tribute to their part in the conversation.
- Be casually frank. Like this: “I have to see about my friend over there.”
- End on a positive note.
- As you walk away, make an innocuous comment, so that the conversation doesn’t end abruptly. Like this: “So, I’m glad you read this column. I appreciate your ‘Some of this is a little obvious’ comment. You’re right! Anyway, I have to end it because I’m almost out of space. You should hit up Leyenda the next time you’re in New York. Truly a great bar.”
(But don’t talk to Mix about bitters.)
How to Get Out of Everything Else
In 2008, Ringo Starr released a video announcement on his website that he would no longer be signing autographs or accepting fan mail. “I am warning you with peace and love, but I have too much to do,” the former Beatle said, signing off with his signature catchphrase, “Peace and love, peace and love.” Which was a brilliant move. He used extreme positivity to express something deeply negative. He couched blanket recognition of his fans in a larger philosophical context. Hence:
The Starr Formula: State explicitly what you will not be doing + give brief reason why + wrap with soothing catchphrase.