From the time most of us were small, we’ve been told: “Don’t interrupt.” And listening is, indeed, a vastly underrated skill set: a person who can do more than hear—who can actually listen—to what’s being said, has a price beyond rubies.
(What distinction am I making between hearing and listening? Someone who hears you is, essentially, just waiting for you to finish speaking so he or she can make their point. Someone who is listening is actually seeking to understand both the intention behind, and the nuances of, what’s being said.)
But I digress.
The title of this article is “Woman Interruptus” because, as women we often interrupt without realizing we are doing it.
What do I mean by this? I mean that women are prone to agreeing and encouraging while others are speaking. “Of course,” we’ll say. “Absolutely.” Or, “I know exactly what you mean!”
The trouble with this is that it can, in fact, cause the speaker to lose his or her train of thought. Or—if you’re speaking with someone who’s naturally more reticent—have them pull back into themselves so you can tell your story.
What would I have you do instead? My recommendation is that you signal your encouragement and agreement via non-verbal techniques: lean in, nod your head, smile.
Having taken care not to interrupt others how, then, would I recommend you handle someone who has interrupted you? While there is a certain levity to, “That was a comma, not a period,” it’s also true that that can land badly.
Given this, my recommendation would be, “Hang on. I know you’re anxious to make your point—and of course I want to hear it— but I wasn’t finished speaking yet.” Acknowledging the person’s need to speak ensures they don’t end up feeling rebuked. If you can do it with a certain amount of levity, I applaud you.
At the very least, please don’t put your hand in their face like a school crossing guard. Although your temperature—and your temper—is likely rising, you need to pause, inhale, and speak on an exhalation. You need to keep your tone even (if you can’t keep it light) and you need to keep your body from contracting. Yes, you are on defense, but once you’re in a crouch, the other person will be, too.
Everybody has been in a meeting with someone who’s a chronic interrupter—you know who I mean, the person who waits no more than a few words into your response before once again beginning to talk over you. If you find yourself in that situation, and the above tactic has not worked, I offer the following. (Please note, however, I recommend its use only for those who can’t seem to let you finish a thought.)
In these situations, the magic phrase is, “I’m getting the impression you don’t think I’m listening to you.” When they say “Why?” your response is, “Because you keep interrupting me.”
The beauty of this particular phrasing is that it doesn’t directly accuse the person of cutting you off. Instead, it opens with you taking the onus on yourself– you are getting the impression, but they are free to deny that’s so. Whether they do or don’t, however, I’m quite sure they will check their interruptions going forward.
“May I?” No.
Finally, let’s look at what to do when you need to interrupt someone else— a not uncommon scenario when you’re running a meeting that’s gone off-track, or are overseeing a team that’s gotten into a wrangle.
When this occurs, many of us interject a meek, “May I interrupt you?” The trouble with that particular choice is that it doesn’t carry the necessary heft to stop the person in their tracks. With this in mind, the next time I’d like to offer the following suggestion for how to step in:
First, I’d ask you to begin by saying, “I’m going to interrupt you.” – a choice which ensures your control of the remainder of the conversation. Obviously, your tone is going to matter a lot here: you can make the delivery as heavy or light as the situation warrants.
After that, you might go on to say, “This sounds like an important idea, but I don’t know that everyone here needs to be in on the discussion—can you and I set another time to discuss it?” Or, “I don’t know that that level of detail is quite required here, but maybe you can follow up with Jane tomorrow?”
Again, in this moment, your physicality and tonality are going to be critical: my request is that you sound both firm and encouraging. The goal is to make it seem an interruption in tactics much the same way halftime is an interruption in sports—you’re merely the umpire marking a pause so the combatants can regroup and move forward more effectively.