unplug (kindly)

The Best Advice So Far - unplug (wall socket extension with too many wires plugged in)

Let me say up front that this post may not be for you. Who is it for then? Well, it’s for people like me:

  • who love people and whose natural tendency is to talk with and listen to others
  • who tend to have high interpersonal output most of the time
  • who sometimes find themselves running on fumes
  • who need ways to unplug without resorting to becoming a recluse

If this sounds like you, read on.

There’s a funny thing about me. (Well, there’s a list, but I’ll tell you about one of them.) It’s actually the cause of much astonishment and incredulous shaking of heads in my circles.

People talk to me.

I mean they really talk to me.

I don’t know why exactly, but I could be the ninth person in the checkout line at a convenience store and every interaction in front of me will be some form of predictable script:

A: “How are you?”

B: “Good ‘n’ you?”

A: “Fine thanks. Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

B: “No that’s all, thanks.”

Not so when I reach the counter. I feel like I technically say the same things: “How are you today?” and the like. But the responses are anything but predictable. Let me give you an example in context.

Just last week, I didn’t go into two different convenience stores I otherwise frequent, for the sheer fact that I was unusually busy and pressed for time. Oh, sure, I had time to run in and grab a protein shake and run out. But that just isn’t the way things go, and I know it. A “quick” stop into such a place might have me leaving an hour or more later.

As it happened, however, I noticed that a couple of tires were running low on air. And the only place I knew where I could fill them at that moment…was one of the aforementioned convenience stores I was purposefully avoiding. Still, I needed the air.

I figured it was OK, since I didn’t actually need to go into the store in order to use the air pump. So off I headed on smushy tires for what I couldn’t image being more than a five-minute ordeal.

Well, the air pump requires four quarters. And while I have a large bag full of change sitting right in the armrest of my car, do you think I could find a measly four quarters?

:: rummage rummage rummage ::


Alas, only three to be found. I’d have to go in.

Well, no sooner had the sliding apertures parted to bathe me in harsh fluorescent light than the twenty-something store clerk spotted me. And despite the small line waiting to check out, he dashed around the counter toward me, arms spread, joyfully shouting my name: E-r-i-i-i-i-i-k!

This culminated in a bear hug, accompanied by some variety of what I can only call “snuggle noises.”

After releasing me, he jogged back to continue ringing out the waiting line of customers. Soon, the queue had dwindled and I was ready to ask for my quarters for the air pump. (You do remember the air pump, right?)

“So anyway…” the clerk started in, as if we’d only momentarily been distracted from an in-depth conversation to which he was now returning. “I’m going to visit my family out of state soon. I haven’t seen them in a while. But I really need to, because I’ve been depressed. You remember my transgender ex-roommate, right? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but she literally tried to kill me. I still think I’m dealing with all of that drama…”

Thing is, this type of interaction isn’t especially unusual for me. In fact, it’s the norm. Again, why that is, I can’t say exactly. It just is. And so typically, I’d listen and ask questions—and leave an hour later with my quarters.

This particular night, however, two out-of-the-ordinary responses were at work inside of me:

1. While the information the clerk was divulging to me wasn’t the least bit funny, I had the most overpowering urge to burst out laughing at the relative absurdity of the situation from anyone else’s perspective.

2. I realized that I was not only too busy to get into a long conversation at the moment, I was also low on mental energy. So I felt a tinge of impeding panic at the thought of having my limited reserves tapped by either a deep and lengthy conversation or by the energy required to tactfully extricating myself from one.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here by telling you just yet how I managed to leave two minutes later with my quarters. But some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot to say in my book The Best Advice So Far on the topic of “ducking” (i.e., changing your course in life to avoid awkward interactions with people from the past). What I’m talking about here is not “ducking.” I really like the people I interact with at “my places.” I enjoy the sense of community that I’ve invested in building. Ironically, that’s part of the problem.

One of the main topics of this blog and the accompanying book is ways to engage with the other people around you. To go a little deeper. To see people as people and not merely as background noise to our own busy lives.

However, the reality is that there are also times when we need to step back. Sometimes, you just have to take the gracious out for the sake of self-preservation.

As Dib and Holly so often reprise in the words of their mom, Carlotta

“Save yourself.”

In The Best Advice So Far, I go into a fair amount of detail exploring techniques for expanding upon a conversation. It stands to reason, then, that doing the opposite will work to keep things short when necessary. Today, I’d like to offer four strategies for disengaging, while still treating others with kindness.

Best Advice So Far: UNPLUG - Four strategies for disengaging, while still treating others with kindness


Unplug Strategy #1: Keep things “closed.”

Open-ended questions have an unlimited set of responses, whereas closed-ended questions have a limited set of responses:

“What have you been up to lately?” [Open-ended question. The reply is unpredictable and may be just about anything.]

“Isn’t it a beautiful day today?” [Closed-ended question. The reply is predictable and limited to a small set.]

Open-ended questions are terrific tools for keeping a conversation going.

However, if you need to keep things short, stick to closed-ended questions.

By the way…

While “How are you?” functions as a closed-ended question most of the time (with a set of replies limited to variations on {good, bad, so-so} ), for those of us who have that je ne sais quoi which usually results in preternatural empathy and connection with others, it most certainly winds up being an open-ended question, I’ve found. If you need to save time or conserve energy, don’t ask. (Better alternatives follow.)

Similarly, in The Best Advice So Far, I explain how noticing (i.e., observing out loud) and reflecting (i.e., repeating back key pieces of information another person has shared) can draw a person out. But the truth is, they can be used in a closed-ended way. This still allows you to connect, to be kind, and to be others-focused, while not inviting a full-on conversation:

“Wow, that’s quite a shiner you’ve got there.” (Open-ended noticing. This encourages the person to tell you the story behind the black eye.)

“Blue looks good on you.” (Closed-ended noticing. Here, I’m complimenting—perhaps on the shirt the person is wearing—while being careful to choose a topic that isn’t likely to have a long backstory.)

“Vacation, huh?” (Open-ended reflection. The person has just told you they are going on vacation. Reflecting it back this way invites them to tell you more: when, where, what they plan to do, etc.)

“I’m glad you’re getting a vacation. So important.” (Closed-ended reflection. I’m still reflecting back that I’ve listened and heard their excitement about the vacation, but in a way that naturally terminates the conversation.)

Unplug Strategy #2: Announce your exit up front.

This one might best be shown simply by giving a few examples:

  • “Hi, Jeremy! Nice to see you. Man, I can hardly catch my breath today. I’m lucky I could find time to run in and grab these items quick.”
  • [Starting a phone call:] “Hey, Karen. I’ve got just about five minutes here before I have to run, but I wanted to be sure to use the little bit of free time I had to give you a ring back regarding your voicemail message.”

In the case of my exuberant and divulging store-clerk friend, here was my response:

  • “Oh, I’m so happy for you that you’ll get to have a little vacation with your family. You deserve it. Hey, listen, I hate to cut things short, but my car is actually running out in the parking lot by the air pumps. Could you change a dollar for quarters?”

Unplug Strategy #3: Don’t divulge.

The more you tell about your own life and times, the more conversation points you introduce. You’ll notice in the examples from the previous point that I didn’t tell the person what is keeping me so busy or why I have to run in five minutes.

This is a lifesaver!

Unplug Strategy #4: Greet…Period.

A genuine “Hello!” with a smile goes a long way. In fact, if this comes naturally to you, it’s easy to forget just how rare, and therefore special, it is these days. Let it be enough. Feel free to further personalize and connect by adding the person’s name and perhaps a “Great to see you.”

And leave it at that.


No need pull up the hood, don the sunglasses or avoid eye contact. You can still be friendly while keeping things short. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard and shared is this: “Saying no isn’t mean, it’s saying yes to something else.” And especially for those who are givers by nature, it’s a good thing to say “yes” to yourself as well.

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