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How to make a graceful exit

by Kerry Parnell
How to make a graceful exit
Image: Getty Images

Walking away with dignity is key to any break-up. Kerry Parnell explains how to do it right.

I should never have taken the job. I didn’t even want it, but a glamorous employer headhunted me and, eventually, the offer of a big pay rise and company car persuaded me. But I was to learn a hard lesson: be clear about the ingredients you need to make you happy at work, because no amount of money is worth being miserable. I’d heard that the corporate culture was one of long hours and an aggressive approach, and that swiftly turned out to be true. I was left with two options – play their game, or quit. I chose the latter.

Despite the temptation to pull off a Bridget Jones-style resignation with a pithy one-liner and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as a soundtrack, I kept my cool. I explained to my boss that I admired their business acumen and that I had learned a lot, but the job wasn’t for me.

Afterwards, in my new role, I would bump into them at events, and I always made a point of acknowledging them. Executive business coach Neela Bettridge says this was the right strategy. ‘Always leave with respect for yourself and your boss,’ she says. ‘You will meet these people again.’

Walking away with dignity is key to any break-up, whether it’s your job, friendship or relationship. A graceful exit, or Grexit, is preferable to a bitter Brexit, with its accompanying tensions, bad-mouthing and recriminations. Here’s how to do it right.

How to walk away...from a friendship

When Lauren separated from her husband and became a single mum, she was shocked when her friend of 20 years didn’t get in touch. ‘It made me realise how flaky she was,’ says Lauren. ‘At the time I most needed her, she wasn’t there. Suddenly, I could see that I had been carrying the friendship for years by organising get-togethers and staying in touch. She obviously just wasn’t as interested in me as I was in her.’ Lauren decided to call her friend to tell her she didn’t have the energy to keep their friendship going. ‘I could have just let it fizzle out,’ she says, ‘but it was important that the relationship had a finality. I explained to her that to me, friendship means being there for someone and that we didn’t seem to share the same perspective. She was shocked and apologised, but for me, it was over. I wished her well, and I was finally able to move on.’

Often the easiest approach, say experts, is to let a stale friendship fizzle out. But sometimes you need closure and, if so, Lauren’s approach was textbook. ‘It’s OK to say you truly care about a friend but you don’t have the time to devote to the friendship any more, or to say you don’t share the same perspective,’ says psychotherapist and relationship coach Melissa Cohen.

She recommends noting down what you want to say beforehand to stop emotions spilling over. Finally, says therapist and life coach Sharon Livingston, keep all feelings off social media and be very careful what you write online. Have difficult conversations in person or, at the very least, over the phone. ‘Avoid accusing or blaming,’ says Sharon, ‘especially with anger.’

Image: Stocksy
Image: Stocksy

How to leave...the wrong job

It’s vital to work out if leaving is your only option. No job is 100% fun and working carries with it a certain level of stress and commitment. Ask yourself why you want to leave – if you’re bored, for instance, have you done everything you can to make the job as fulfilling as possible? If you are struggling with work/life balance, have you exhausted all the remote working or part-time possibilities your company is able to offer? If you have a difficult colleague, have you spoken to your manager or HR? If your boss is the reason you want to resign, make sure you can’t resolve some of the issues first, says Neela. ‘Have a courageous conversation with them,’ she recommends. ‘Explain you feel undervalued, for example, or overworked.’

But if you can’t see a way forward, if your job is taking its toll on your mental health, or simply if you are itching to do something else and are financially stable enough to consider a career change, it may be time to bow out. Career coach Kathy Caprino gives her clients a ‘should you resign?’ checklist when quitting is on the cards, which includes questions such as: Are you are unhappy every day? Are you using your skills? Do you believe in your job? If you had a frank conversation with your managers, would it be possible to improve things? ‘Work shouldn’t mean you spend eight hours in misery every day,’ she says. ‘You shouldn’t have to lose a sense of self.’

It can be difficult to resign tactfully, but no matter how bad your boss, ‘do not gossip or bad-mouth them,’ advises Neela. ‘You should aim to leave on really good terms; remain dignified, professional and thorough; engage with people, finish your work and debrief people properly, including your boss.’ This is what your employers will remember, so don’t ruin a good record by being petulant – you will need a reference, after all. Keep the emphasis on the positive, and talk about how the company has benefited you. Most importantly, don’t slack off at the end. Make sure you’ll be missed.

How to end...a stale relationship

‘I started reading my diaries and realised my partner and I were still having the same rows years on,’ says Maria. ‘It dawned on me nothing would ever change.’ No-one takes the decision to leave a relationship lightly, but Relate counsellor Denise Knowles says having the same conflicts time after time is a bad sign. ‘A key sign a relationship is broken is not being able to communicate,’ she says. She recommends asking yourself: Have you tried to talk through how you feel? Do you feel your partner has listened? Do you both want to change? Finally, she advises you work out whether you will gain by leaving, or lose out. ‘Put simply,’ she says, ‘can you live without the relationship?’

Be honest with yourself about your reasons for staying in a relationship that’s past its sell-by date. ‘Fear often keeps us in relationships that are unhealthy,’ says psychotherapist Rachel Sussman. ‘We think, what if I don’t meet anyone again? What if I get lonely or depressed? We go into denial.’

Once we have decided to leave, how can we make a graceful exit? There will never be a perfect time to end it, warns Denise. But putting it off will do more harm than good; letting the pressure build until you explode is not the answer. She advises forewarning your partner by telling them you want a discussion and arranging a time and neutral place. Then, if they get upset or angry, understand why. ‘They may have been in denial and be shocked,’ says Denise. ‘Say, “I can see you are angry and upset; let’s make another date to continue, but be assured I am clear it is over.”’ The best break-ups, she adds, aren’t emotional or unkind; they are authentic, planned and controlled.

Finally, remember that whether you are leaving a job, a partner or a friend, breaking up gracefully will mean there is a much better chance you will be able to find happiness in the future.

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