I Believe in Listening…
- I’ve taught workshops and seminars on the subject;
- Listening skills are key to my coaching; and
- My shelves are filled with books on how to listen better.
… But I’m Also a Confirmed Interrupter
The truth is that:
- I get impatient when people talk slowly, in circles, or in very great detail;
- My fast, aggressive, New York style often involves cutting people off; and
- I’m quick to jump in with my own theory or analysis while others are still telling me the problem.
I don’t regard these as virtuous behaviors, so I was surprised when a new client recently asked me,
How Do You Interrupt Someone?
There are many valid reasons to interrupt someone. For example,
- You’re in a meeting and someone takes the conversation way off point in a way that doesn’t have value;
- You’ve totally lost the other person’s point and can no longer take in what they’re saying;
- Someone has interrupted you mid-point;
- Someone is using inappropriate language or stereotypes; or
- You’re a radio or TV host and it’s time to cut to a station break 🙂
In these and other situations where, in your judgment, interrupting someone is warranted… you can do it without damaging relationships or ratcheting up the tensions in the room.
When You Interrupt Someone, Check Yourself
Your interruption is not an attack.
And, as with any other type of communication, you have three tools to get that message across: your voice, your face, and your body.
Make Your Voice Friendly, Firm, and Clear
To interrupt someone, raise your volume just slightly above theirs. (You can also drop your volume just slightly below theirs, but that’s a pretty high-level trick.)
Keep your tone clear and firm, and maybe just a little regretful. You should sound as if you’re delivering slightly bad news to a friend (“I’d love to catch that movie with you, but tonight’s not good”). Your attitude should be that you don’t enjoy interrupting this person, you’re doing it because it’s necessary.
If interrupting is new to you, I recommend working on your tone as you practice these sample interrupting phrases:
John! Excuse me!
John, I’m sorry to interrupt, but…
John, forgive me, but…
John!! I wasn’t finished.
Now that you have the other person’s attention, either
- Move quickly to a clear, non-personal explanation of why you interrupted (“John, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to debate that now.”); or
- Just redirect the discussion. (“John, excuse me. The meeting’s over in five minutes, and we need to vote, so can everyone please take raise your hands if…”)
“Smile When You Say That,” in a Particular Way
Another way to lower the possibility of backlash is to keep a friendly look on your face when you’re interrupting.
As with your tone, though calibrate carefully. A slight, regretful smile works well, but be sure it’s not a grin. A grin can easily be interpreted as snarky, or triumphant, which is the opposite of what you don’t want to convey.
(And yes, just as you can practice your tone of voice, you can practice this facial expression using your mirror.)
Try a Very Light Touch
If you happen to be sitting or standing right next to the person you want to interrupt, another way to get their attention is to touch them very lightly on the arm.
Of course, use common sense about this: Follow your judgment about whether it’s OK to touch the particular person you’re interrupting, and if you think it is, don’t grab, scratch, dig, or stroke their arm, just touch it lightly with your fingertips.
Often, an unexpected touch will cause people to stop talking and turn toward you. Then you can speak to them more “privately,” for example, saying,
John, may I jump in here?
When You Interrupt Someone, Does Your Gender (and Theirs) Matter?
Of course it does!
But that doesn’t mean these tips are just for women.
Everyone benefits from a calm, civil workplace.
So even if you don’t need to approach interrupting someone graciously, try it.
You’ll probably be happy that you did.