You’re speaking. But then someone forcefully interjects. Maybe the topic is heated; maybe it’s full of emotion. Maybe the interrupter is just being a jerk.
Our cutoff culture is getting fresh side-eye because of the presidential and vice presidential debates. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s debate was nonstop talk-overs (the Washington Post called Trump the “interrupter-in-chief”), while Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris’ exchange reminded many women of how irksome it is when men cut us off while we’re making important points.
Experts say our conversations — whether with our family or on Zoom calls with colleagues — are more charged now because our country is so divided, and we’re stressed out by the pandemic. The interruption has become a weapon. And, frankly, it’s unacceptable. We all want to be heard. We need to do better.
If the ground rules are being ignored and your discussions have devolved into a pandemonium, these tips should help calm the conversation down, whether we’re at home, at happy hour, or on an hours-long conference call.
Recognize the kind of interruption
Let’s be clear, butting in while someone is speaking is rude 99% of the time. But if we can figure out our interrupter’s intention said Frances Cole Jones, founder of Cole Media Management, a New York-based firm that helps professionals communicate better, we can save ourselves a lot of grief.
The well-meaning interruption. Sometimes people stop us mid-sentence to save us from ourselves or to keep a meeting moving, because we are sharing information that isn’t quite right, or going on too long. In these cases, Jones said, acknowledge the well-meaning interrupter and thank them for their contribution.
The bullying interruption. There are interruptions, however, that are designed to marginalize the person speaking. These can happen anywhere, from the boardroom to the barbershop. If your gut is telling you the person who is barging in while you have the floor is trying to bully, silence, or filibuster, you have two options: flag them in the moment or circle back, says Terri Boyer, director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.
Boyer says that we — especially women who are routinely cut mid-conversation by men — need to nip these interruptions in the bud ASAP. Why? Because often, the offending man doesn’t even realize what he’s doing, or that this is a show of power. A 2014 study by George Washington University found men were 33 percent more likely to interrupt another woman than they would a man. When this happens, Boyer said, call it out in the moment.
Sometimes, you can’t step in without causing a fuss. Then, Boyer said, you will have to follow up later and let them know their actions were, well, rude. It’s not fair that women and minorities are tasked with calmly righting the wrongs, but if we don’t speak up, Boyer points out, people in higher positions will continue to literally cut off the little person because they can. “Our short-term goals are to be heard, but long-term we want to change this long accepted power dynamic,” Boyer said.
How to stop yourself from interrupting
There are going to be those times when no matter how hard you try, the urge to shut someone down in polite company may overcome you. But think before you start to steamroll.
Recognize your style of communication. Perhaps you come from a loud family where you had no choice but to talk over each other. It can be hard to outgrow that, especially when you feel insecure or threatened. Try pausing for a beat before you talk; it will work out for you better in the long run, said Deanna Geddes, a professor of human resources management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
What’s your intention? Do you want to be heard, or do you want to change someone’s mind? Chances are your passion won’t change what someone else thinks and your indignation could cause them to double down. If, however, you want to cut in to be heard, remember the person on the other side of the table wants to be heard, too. It’s only fair that you take a beat, let them speak, and then give your two cents when they are completely done.
Practice active listening. Active listening is listening with the intention of fully understanding, not just waiting to respond. So often, Boyer said, the moment people stop speaking, we are ready to pounce on them with our next statement. “That lets you know you are really not hearing them and it doesn’t bode well for honest communication,” Boyer said. Often active listeners write things down or hesitate for a second, or two, before responding. And while the moment of silence can be awkward, it gives us the time to truly think before we speak.
When to interrupt
There may be times, Boyer said, when you might have to press pause on the speaker and speak up.
If you need clarity. It’s hard to follow a conversation if you don’t understand what’s been said. Politely interject and ask the speaker to clarify.
If you need to correct something. If you, or someone else, has given incorrect information, especially if it’s critical, speak up and correct the record.
If someone is saying something racist, homophobic, rude, or hurtful. “If people are displaying blatant bias, we encourage people to interrupt,” Boyer said.
If someone is being interrupted. We — especially women — have to protect each other in the work culture. If someone is constantly cutting off others, you can politely step in and make them aware that their behavior will not be tolerated.
When you do interrupt, Jones says, notice your tone. Be clear, but not accusatory. “The best way to handle interruptions is to channel your inner New York restaurant hostess,” Jones said. “She interjects in a way that you stop what you are doing, listen, and ultimately wait your turn.”