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Interrupting With Grace

27 May 2009 No Comment

Do you hate it when people interrupt you? You know those situations – when you’re half way through expressing your thought and someone butts in and starts jabbering themselves?

I confess I do it, myself. Yes, it’s true. I am an interrupter!

Why do people interrupt

I’ve been thinking about this for some time and there are several possible reasons, why I interrupt:

  • I want to annoy you and guess this will do the trick
  • I know what you’re going to say and I’ll express it better than you possibly could
  • I disagree with you and can’t wait to find out what it is I’m actually disagreeing with before telling you
  • I’m so excited about my idea and I don’t have the patience to wait for you to finish
  • I’m not listening to you and don’t even realise you’re talking.

Some of these are not reasons I’m happy with and I’ve worked pretty hard on developing more patience, greater attention to others and generally growing up to avoid those. From time to time I forget and still do it, but it gets better.

Interrupting is not always ‘bad’

In many cultures it’s considered a ‘bad’ thing to interrupt. Most of the time I agree, because if I’m interrupting then I’m not listening.  I consider listening to be the core skill in communication (maybe even more important than expressing myself).

If I’m not listening to you then it is not necessarily about my lack of attention or skill! It could be that you’re  just not saying anything that touches or interests me in any way. Usually there’s no life in the conversation and I’m not feeling any connection between us.

A few years ago I would have politely allowed you to finish what you were saying, feigning interest, nodding my head and laughing in what I judged to be the right places. Sometimes I’d get caught out and laugh at what I thought was a joke, but was in fact a serious comment. I’d either try to escape at the earliest opportunity or to at least steer the conversation onto something more interesting.

Isn’t life too short to pretend to listen to someone for the sake of politeness (which after all is culturally specific)? Aren’t there better things we could both be doing instead of staying in a dead conversation? I’ve grown to believe that it’s ‘bad’ to allow someone to continue talking when there’s no life in the conversation.

Isn’t it better to find a way to interrupt with style and grace?

How to interrupt

Here’s my own guide to interrupting in a way that’s, at the very least not going to do any harm, and might even improve the conversation.

1   Why am I not listening?

I want to be clear what’s going on that’s making it hard for me to listen.

Is it about my stuff?

Perhaps my own thoughts have been triggered by something I heard and I want to share those. Or maybe I’m distracted, tired or impatient and would prefer to be somewhere else.

Or is it about what I’m hearing?

Perhaps I’m not clear what’s motivating the speaker to share. Maybe the story is longer than my interest level. Or it could be that I’m just struggling to connect with any life in what I’m hearing.

Ideally, I’ll be able to bring my attention back to you and not have to interrupt at all.

2   What’s my intention in interrupting?

It’s important to me that I can connect with my own positive intention in interrupting, otherwise I’m just going to come across as rude and selfish. Yes, I want to interrupt to look after my own needs, but I also want to pay attention to the speaker’s needs. After all, they are giving me a gift by trying to express something. I assume it’s important to them or they wouldn’t be making the attempt to communicate it.

At the very least I guess they want to be heard, and right now that’s not happening.

3   Get attention

This can be tricky, especially if the speaker is not very aware of their audience. I find the best approach is usually a straight forward:

I’d like to interrupt you”

I might also do some kind of signal (stand up, put up my hand etc.).

4   Quickly explain what’s going on

Before the speaker can get upset, I explain in a couple of sentences what’s going on and why I’ve interrupted.

I find it important to stay with the interruption itself rather than pretend I haven’t done it. That’s what happens if I just launch into saying what I want to say. Each situation is different, so just as an example I might say something like:

“I’d really like to be giving you my full attention, and I guess you’d like that too. Right now I’m lost in the detail I’m hearing and I’ve stopped listening.”

5    What I want to happen now

The final thing I want to say is to make a clear request about what I want to happen now.

It could be something related to the topic, such as:

Could you summarise in a couple of sentences the key points you wanted me to hear?”

Or it could be related to the interruption itself, such as:

“I’m concerned you might have heard some criticism. How is it for you that I’ve interrupted you?

There are times we owe it to ourselves and those around us to interrupt. It is possible to do it with grace, and I found the times I’ve used this way have greatly improved the conversation.

I would much rather be interrupted than have you fake listening to me.

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