Person Talk on PhoneThey’ve got it pressed against your head, and you know you aren’t going anywhere for a while. You’re being held against your will. There’s no SWAT team to save you because, until Smartlife becomes a federal agency, holding someone hostage on the phone won’t be treated as a felony. They think they’re just talking, and the fact that you might have something else to do just hasn’t occurred to them.

Test: Have you ever gotten off the phone and realized that you’ll have to do what you were actually already doing after lunch? Tomorrow? Did you get anything useful from the phone call at all?

Some co-workers think that your phone is the one from Doctor Who’s phone box, one that pauses time so they can talk from now until the heat death of the universe and you’ll still be able to finish up before leaving. Even if they were all interesting conversations, and let’s not lie here, they aren’t, you just can’t spare so much time from your own work for people who are only trying to get out of doing their own.

Friends and family understand the “I’ve got to go,” but colleagues can be trickier. Implying that you have to get back to work should be okay — that’s kind of what you’re all there to do — but some fantastic flaws in human nature can interpret this as a snub, an accusation, or “Oh, you’re working…well, what am I now, chopped liver?” To which the answer is: “No. Chopping liver is a useful task with a definite end, unlike this conversation.”

Here we present three surefire strategies for escaping an endless phone call. There used to be four, but you can’t pull a mobile phone out of the wall.

1. The checklist and thank you

With a rambling discussion and no end in sight, start extracting a checklist of what needs to be done from the other party. (The sort of thing they should have worked out before calling you, but saying so is impolitic and often career-ending.) They can’t get upset at you for trying to do things for them faster than they’d like, and it sets a firm end on the conversation — because as soon as they agree on the list, a good solid “Okay, thanks, I’ll get right on that” will get you right off that. It’s important to be firm on the thanks — any wishy-washiness is an invitation to continue The Conversation, Volume III, Part 2, Director’s Cut.

The beauty of this tactic is how it can force them to confess — if they admit that they don’t know what they want, you can eagerly ask them to let you know as soon as they do. And hang up.

2. The e-mail

Even when you’ve got what they want, some times are just Not Good Times and you have to get off the line without giving that impression. Modern technology might put you at the end of a phone line wherever you are, unless you work in a lead mine on the dark side of the moon, but it also offers a lifeline: e-mail. This is your parachute in any conversation — no matter what they want or why they want it, you can mail it to them. In fact, since you want to do a proper job, you’re going to check your records to make sure and send it to them RIGHT NOW.

The catch-all for the counter-argument is to ask them to reply with anything else they need — now they can type all their worries away while leaving you in peace.

3. Cut out (and across)

Options 1 and 2, the “Left Hook” and “Right Hook” of office phone fisticuffs, are usually enough. But sometimes you’ll go up against the Mobile Phone Megavillain, the Doctor Doom of Droning who introduces subclause after subclause while stopping just enough to make you start to speak before steamrollering on like an supertanker full of gray porridge.

That’s when you need to show some steel: cut out and across. Just power through the next time you start to speak, drilling into your closing phrases and hanging up. Tell them someone just walked in, that you have a meeting you have to prepare for, that MI6 have burst into your office and James Bond wants a word. Just keep going without any fatal pauses giving them the chance for an eternal reply.

Stay polite and friendly, but not Charlie Brown polite and friendly — we’re talking Clint Eastwood, real friendly-like. It’s okay. It’s helpful. Hell, the fact that they’re even bothering you now proves that everyone else they’ve ever talked to cut them off somehow — now it’s your turn.

Image credit: GeorgeDolgikh / iStockphoto