WASHINGTON, January 4, 2014 – “There are two faults in conversation, which appear very different, yet arise from the same root, and are equally blamable; I mean, an impatience to interrupt others, and the uneasiness of being interrupted ourselves.”
Jonathan Swift was always good for an astute observation like this one. But since it’s known that the highly intelligent and sophisticated readers of this column never, ever interrupt others while they are speaking, today’s topic will address the galling problem of being interrupted and how to deal with it when it happens to you.
That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, however. Aside from arson, sudden natural disaster, or the immutable law of unintended consequences, you may inadvertently be providing legitimate reasons for other people to interrupt you.
In any case, there is no easy one-size-fits-all response one can deploy when one is interrupted. In fact, of the many ways to respond to this kind of thoughtless rudeness, some are so subtle that they are scarcely noticeable; others are so direct you could alienate your interrupters permanently.
This article addresses seven general reasons why speakers—including you—are interrupted, followed by two suggested responses for each scenario, one subtle and the other direct. Choose a response you think will fit your goals for your meeting or conversation—not your emotional agenda. That’s hard to do when you’re annoyed, bored, or frustrated, so always strive to remain actively involved in your exchange.
Your best bet is to field test these suggested responses with care. What may work well for one individual’s personal style could completely backfire for another’s.
- Poor talking/speaking skills. Are you the problem? Droning on in a conversation will drive people mad and they are likely to react accordingly.
Subtle response: “In closing, ….” Keep it short—terse, even. Don’t apologize, but definitely stop talking. Next time, think before you speak and edit yourself in advance.
Direct response: Say, “I don’t mean to dominate the floor” (even if you do). Next time, try dominating the room with your presence rather than your pronouncements.
- Poor listening skills. Listeners simply don’t notice that you’re not done yet.
Subtle response: “I don’t mean to interrupt, but may I please finish?”
Direct response: “Did you notice I’m not finished yet?”
- Look at ME! This is a kid problem. But it’s also a problem for older “kids” who are disguised as adults and still want to be the center of attention. All the time.
Subtle response: “Give me a moment. Then we can address your concern/issue/ideas.”
Direct response: “We’ll get to that as soon as I’m done.” Stop making eye contact with the interrupter.
- Overeager. They care. They really care. They answer your questions before you say four words, and they finish your sentences with four of their own.
Subtle response: “Give me a minute. You’re so helpful I’m going off my game.”
Direct response: “That wasn’t what I was going to say.” Wait for their response, and then continue with your point.
- Impatient. Some people are in such a hurry, aren’t they? They don’t understand that talk is linear and it won’t come out all at once.
Subtle response: “I have [x] more points to make.” Then make them, using your fingers to count them off.
Direct response: “I don’t want to confuse you by talking faster than I can think.”
- It’s MY turn. Is it really? Are you important enough to be entitled to a turn?
Subtle response: “Hang on a second. Everyone will get a chance to speak.”
Direct response: “I’m not finished. Is it your turn already?”
- Power Plays. Some people think the cool guy is the one who talks all the time.
Subtle response: Don’t look at the speaker. Turn your body slightly away from him or her. Don’t take notes. Give no feedback, verbal or nonverbal.
Direct response: “Does anyone else have a contribution?”
Whatever you do …
… don’t lose your temper. And don’t insult anyone in public or private. Whining, bitching, and yelling diminish authority and annihilate self-respect. Whether you’re a speaker or an interrupter, if your agenda goes against the good of the group or any of its members, shut up, go away, and rethink your intentions.
Any other causes for interruption we haven’t touched on here? Let us know, and we’ll cover how to deal with them in a future column.
Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language) and provides training in business presentations and interpersonal conversation skills for native and non-native speakers of English. Her company, Leadership English™, offers communications skills, training and coaching for non-native and native English speakers, as well as award-winning writing and editorial services for businesses large and small.
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