Three Steps to Ending Things With Grace

For this article by Jo Ilfeld, Executive Leadership Coach on ending things with grace, the image shows a fall landscape with a winding road leading into the horizon.

This article originally appeared in Forbes and was listed in January’s Editors’ Picks.

Towards the end of last year, I was knee-deep in helping my son, a high school Senior, with his college applications. So we’re talking grammar in my household. We all know that you end sentences with a period. A comma signals that a thought is continuing, but a period lets us know a thought has been completed. 

We use periods to separate ideas, to turn our attention to new beginnings, and more importantly, to mark completion. 

We use periods liberally in our emails and other things we write, even on Twitter, yet what about our interpersonal interactions? In that space, why is it so much harder to mark the completion and draw an end to something? If you look at the ghosting statistics, we all find it difficult, preferring to shy away from honorable closures, choosing instead to simply ‘vanish’, to stop responding to messages or emails without ever saying why. 

An amazing coach colleague of mine talks about honorable closure as a way that people can end their coaching client engagements and I love that phrase, although I think we need it in more than just our coaching relationships these days. 

About 9 months ago I wanted to end sessions with my trainer. We weren’t a true fit and yet she kept telling me how much she needed new clients so I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about leaving her with one less client. It wasn’t until I broke my ankle and couldn’t work out anymore that it looked like the relationship was coming to a natural end. 

However, my trainer was under the impression that I was coming back after my ankle healed. For a moment, I was tempted to make excuses and procrastinate on getting back to her– in other words, ghost her. But finally, I did the honorable thing and ended the relationship, clearly and honestly. So I know, this is hard terrain! 

Many of us, myself included, shy away from discussing endings because we’re uncomfortable with the act of closing out a relationship. But there is another way, and as awkward as it might feel in the moment, it offers more peace of mind afterward. 

Three Secrets of Honorable Closure:

1. Name it: The most important step in closure is naming that a relationship, as it has been, will no longer be. Endings don’t have to mean no relationship, but they do signal change. Boyfriends can dissolve into “just friends.” Ex-bosses can become networking contacts. College friends can become reunion acquaintances. When you don’t name the end of one part of the relationship though, there’s often one person left wondering what happened and when? When you mindfully go through the, sometimes painful, parts of break-ups, resignations, and change, you leave open the possibility that your relationship can now morph into a new form that you both agree to. That’s not possible when one party just disappears.

2. Answer Questions:  Not all endings are mutual. For the endings that aren’t, it’s even more important that we give the other person/people a chance to ask us questions:

  • Why are you leaving our company?
  • Why are you raising your rates?
  • What made you decide to discontinue our vendor relationship?

Maybe you know the answer. Perhaps you feel comfortable sharing your “why” answer. Yet even if you want to protect your reasoning, allowing the other person a chance to process the ending with you gives you a better chance to have a new type of relationship afterward.

3. Create A Chance To Share What Was Learned In The Relationship:  On both sides. This one does depend on the type of relationship, and your learning: if what you learned from someone is that you really need a more attractive significant other, it’s probably wise not to share that one. However, many of your long-standing relationships have provided mutual learning and mutual benefits. It is honorable to share how you’ve learned and grown through the relationship. Employees can share all they’ve gained from working somewhere; service providers can create the space for mutual appreciation of the relationship, even interviewees can help organizations understand how accurately they portray themselves in the market. 

Julian Barnes titled one of his books, “The Sense of an Ending” and I love that language. When you start to sense endings in your world, are you willing to be courageous enough to step forward, name it and allow it to be honorable? 

I’ll admit, I still have work to do on this front – I have definitely ghosted a few service providers which I’m not proud of. Yet, I continue to be committed to being aware of this weakness and working to transition more of my endings into honorable closure territory.

Is there a relationship or project you are coming to completion with? What would it look like for you to lean into a more intentional ending there? Drop me a comment below. I look forward to reading and hearing about your wisdom and what this sparks for you.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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