How to Interrupt

In a recent conversation with a new client I told him that, after speaking with his stakeholders, I learned that 1) they value him tremendously and 2) he has some work to do in the area of listening. He’s a brilliant person whose brain works incredibly fast. In conversation, he becomes impatient and sometimes jumps in to finish others’ sentences.

He took the feedback very seriously and said “I’m going to go out right after we’re done talking and thank people for the feedback. And I’ll tell them I’m committed to not interrupting.”

I said, “Hold on. I never said you shouldn’t interrupt. In fact I want you to interrupt but I want you to do it very differently.”

The upside of Interrupting

I recently watched an interview where the interviewer cut off the speaker and said “I interrupt with love.” And he meant it. He was so curious about the point she just made that he wanted to understand more.

Done well, interrupting can deepen understanding and improve relationships. Done poorly, it does the opposite.

2 Ways NOT to Interrupt

1. Finishing Sentences

Remember how it felt when someone cut you off and then finished your thought for you? If it was someone very close to you, you might have had a feeling that you two understood each other very well. In a work setting, or in a heated discussion, you probably felt like the interrupter was rude, impatient, and didn’t have any idea what you really felt.

2. To talk about yourself

Have you ever had anyone interrupt you and then co-opt the conversation? Maybe you were sharing a story about a difficulty you were having when they said “Oh, I’ve been there…” and then proceeded to talk for several minutes about their past.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t share when you find commonality. Just do it mindfully. Done well, sharing about things you have in common or your own fallibilities, can improve relationships. Just keep the focus on them.

Four Reasons to Skillfully Interrupt

If you want others to see you as curious and interested, you have to ask questions. And often, you have to interrupt to create space for your question—especially if your conversation partner likes to talk.

Do Interrupt:

1. When you want to ensure understanding

“Excuse me. I just want to make sure I understand. It sounds like the problem we’re trying to solve is…”

2. To help them clarify their thinking

“I apologize for interrupting. I just want to make sure I understand. It sounds like your goal is….and your biggest concerns are…. Did I get that right?

3. Because you’re genuinely curious

“Wait. What do you mean that you went through a dark period?” or “Hold on. How could you tell that he was bored in your meeting?” “Wow, can we take a step back. You just made a really interesting point. How did you come to that conclusion?”

4. To facilitate a productive conversation. Sometimes, interrupting is the best way to get a conversation back and track. Meetings without skillful, facilitative interruption turn into chaotic wastes of time.

  • “It sounds like we’ve surfaced a topic that’s different from the meeting objective. How about the two of you continue that discussion later?”
  • “Excuse me. We’re running short on time and we have a few people we haven’t heard from…”
  • “Sorry to interrupt, but my next meeting will call in 5 minutes and I want to make sure I answer your question.”

Your Turn: 3 Steps to Becoming an Effective Interrupter

Step One: Self-Reflect

  • Notice when you interrupt. For at least one day, commit to reflect after significant conversations. Do this with both work and personal conversations.
  • Note:
    • When and with whom did you interrupt?
    • Was it just a habitual reflex or was it intentional?
    • What was the underlying emotion? (e.g. impatience, annoyance, curiosity?)
    • What was their reaction?

Step Two: Invite Others to Notice and Support

  • Tell the important people in your life (at work and home) that you are aware that you have this annoying habit and are working on doing it less. This admission will help you become more self-aware and more apt to catch yourself.
  • Tell them you will be working on mindfully interrupting in a way that deepens your understanding (You are priming them to see that your interruptions are done with good intentions and deep listening).
  • Invite them to call you out when you rudely interrupt. Even if they don’t do it, they will appreciate your vulnerability. And those who have the confidence to call you on it will enjoy supporting you. Just make sure you don’t get defensive when they do call you out. Instead, thank them and do better next time.
  • When you do interrupt out of impatience (you will, because you’re human and we don’t change habits overnight), apologize, and invite them to continue. People can be amazingly forgiving following a genuine apology.

You may be tempted to skip step two because it feels awkward. Don’t even think about it. Research has shown that people pay attention to what they are used to paying attention to. Unless you signal that you are doing something different, they are unlikely to notice and appreciate the positive changes in you.

Step Three: Follow up & Re-calibrate

Once you’ve been working on mindfully interrupting, check back with your key stakeholders in a few weeks to learn what they are noticing. Don’t guess; ask.

You can remind them: “I’ve been working on respectfully interrupting. If I was to listen better, with more curiosity, what would that look like?

Notice how that’s phrased in the future tense? Many people find giving you feedback about past performance creepy. But when phrased in the future tense, it allows them to think creatively and imagine a positive future that they enjoy describing for you. Then take their request to heart and deliver.

Step Four: Enjoy your new reputation as a great listener and skillful interrupter!

About Denise R. Green: An executive coach with expertise in leadership development, brain-based communication, and habit change, Denise helps busy, burned-out leaders get their mojo back. She founded Brilliance Inc after 15 years as a corporate leader in Oracle and Charles Schwab.


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