You’re giving a presentation on the company’s strategic direction when one of your colleagues interrupts you. You pause, address his question, and continue with your point — until he interrupts again. Sound familiar?
All of us have known colleagues, friends, or romantic partners who seem unable to let us finish a sentence. How do you handle them effectively? There are a number of tactics. But it is important to understand when and why people interrupt others.
Culture plays a role in interruptions when reading about how people from individualistic and collectivistic cultures interact in conversation. In one study, Japanese participants (whose culture is collectivistic) tended to switch their usual cooperative interruption style (e.g., interruptions asking for clarifications) to the more intrusive North American style when they were engaged in conversations in English with Americans.
Studies of group discussions and conversations during meetings have found that status is another reason. High-status people are asked their opinions more often, talk more, receive more positive comments, are chosen as leaders more frequently, are more likely to influence their group’s decisions, and in general dominate the conversation. Studies of conversations involving couples and families have also found such status effects.
People tend to dominate conversations and interrupt when they feel more powerful than others in the room or when they want to signal power to others. When we induced people to feel powerful, by having them write about a time they had power over other people, they gave more weight to their own opinions than to a more informed advisor’s when making decisions.
How should you handle interrupters?
- Preempt the interrupter. Of course you can ask the person who interrupted to allow you to finish what you were saying. Even better, before you start talking, preview what you plan to say and stipulate when it’s okay to break in.
- Hold a constructive private conversation. If the interruptions continue, speak to the person in private. Give the interrupter the benefit of the doubt; as was the case with me, they may not realize their tendency to interrupt. Talk to the person about what you’ve observed and for how long, and explain how it affects you (and others, if appropriate). This straight talk, when framed constructively, is more likely to produce a behavioral change.
- Enlist the group. If you’d prefer to avoid embarrassing the interrupter, you can address the whole group without pointing fingers. Ask the group to reflect on whether you are communicating effectively together and what could be improved. This strategy would allow every member, including you, to raise their awareness of challenges facing the group, a first important step in addressing problems like this one.
- Go in prepared. People are less likely to disrupt a meeting if they feel like they had a hand in shaping it. Send out a proposed agenda ahead of time and ask your team for input. Give them a time frame within which to make recommendations and ask that they include a reason why they think the item is worthy of discussion. Everyone should have a say but “the team leader gets the final decision about what to include.”
- Stay calm. When someone interrupts or challenges you in a meeting, it’s important to respond in “a leaderly way.” Your goal is to “react with humor, kindness, inclusion, and assertiveness.”
The first and last points are very important. It is important to stay cool and try to understand why and where your colleagues are coming from. As long as they are adding to the idea or sticking to the overall goal to make a better solution, then things are still moving in the right direction. Just get your point across and solve the issue.