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Stop Interrupting

Learn how to quit interrupting other people.

By
Lisa B. Marshall
November 28, 2008

Listener Annie called and left the following message:

I have a really bad habit of interrupting people. This is really a problem as it annoys the people I am talking to and I was wondering if there was any way you could help me.

Interrupting Is Disruptive

Thanks, Annie, for your question. The first step towards correcting any communication problem is to become aware of it. So Annie, in a way, it’s good thing that you already recognize that your behavior is negatively affecting others. Certainly everyone knows what it feels like to be interrupted, but not everyone is aware that they are the ones doing the interrupting. Obviously, interrupting another person is disruptive and can be perceived as inconsiderate or even rude.

But, you should also know that you are not alone. Interruptions happen all the time, everyday. People interrupt people. People even interrupt themselves (with phone calls, or email). Sometimes people interrupt for good reasons (like asking for clarification) but often it’s just a bad habit!

In today’s episode we’ll focus on a few techniques to help you stop interrupting other people. (However, before I share a few strategies, I need to come clean and let you know that I once walked in your shoes. Fortunately, I’ve overcome this habit. Well, at least I think I have.)

Some people interrupt simply because when the other person is talking, they think of something to say. Maybe a rebuttal or an idea that is related to the conversation. They have the urge to blurt it out as quickly as possible. The problem is in that moment, the listening stops, and the focus moves away from the speaker. The interrupter will focus instead on what he or she wants to say. Formulating and rehearsing, while waiting for a crack in the conversation. 

Express Your Thoughts, But In Writing

Instead of breaking into the conversation, write down your ideas as they occur. If you don't have paper, just make a mental note.

Fixing this is just a matter of keeping quiet. Instead of breaking into the conversation, write down the ideas as they occur. Don’t verbally express them the moment they occur; just jot them down for later use. If you don’t have paper, just make a mental note. The idea is to quickly record your thoughts so you can continue to focus on the speaker (and not yourself). Later after you’re sure you’ve heard everything, decide which ideas to present and how to present them to the speaker.

This is generally a good technique to use with people who have significantly more power or authority than you, like senior managers. It’s a good idea to let them finish. Mostly because they’ll assume they’ll be allowed to complete their thoughts. But also keep in mind they might decide to use their power against if you continue to interrupt.

Shut Your Trap

Another idea is to ask your boss or significant other for help. My x-boss, Michael, helped me with my habit. His solution was to interrupt me, after I interrupted him. He’d hold his hand up and say, “Hey, there you go again, you are interrupting me. Please listen first, before you speak.” In his case, he was very abrupt, and often said those words in an exasperated tone. Of course, I hated these little battles over who was allowed to talk, but after repeated exposure, I began to realize that I had a problem and I needed to fix it.

At first, my strategy was to keep my mouth shut. And I mean, physically keep my mouth shut. I would actually think about keeping my lips together, and tighten my mouth when I had the urge to speak up. I even wrote little reminders on my notepads that said, “SU,” my super secret code for “shut-up.” Whenever Michael would call me in for a discussion, I would just sit there looking down at my notepad, squeezing my lips while trying to focus in on his words. I wouldn’t speak at all unless he specifically said, “Well, what do you think?”

Oh, Sorry, Go On

But, Michael didn’t like that either (and neither did I). I finally realized that he liked that I had ideas; he just wanted me to listen first and not jump to conclusions. So, I modified the technique. I still reminded myself not to speak and I would jot down my ideas as they occurred. After the second or third idea, I’d then look for break in the conversation and share my thoughts. At times, I would slip back into my old ways and start to interrupt, but then, I would catch myself, and simply say, “Oh, sorry, go on."

Eventually I was able to navigate the discussions without writing things down and most importantly without those annoying interruptions.

For me, I think I was interrupting because I wanted to make a good impression, to show that I could quickly work through issues and solve problems. But by interrupting and solving the wrong problems I was making just the opposite impression that I was hoping for. After gaining the confidence to know that my ideas were valued, I was able to relax and really listen and communicate effectively – without interrupting others.

Get Someone To Help You

Maybe you’ll want to ask your boss and/or significant other to help you. Tell each of them that you are trying to change your behavior and you need help. When they notice that you’re interrupting have them let you know in gentle way. I wouldn’t recommend the abrupt approach that Michael used, instead work out a gesture or other method of conveying that you are interrupting. Only the two of you need to know what’s going on. Maybe use a “wind it down” hand signal in the shape of a descending spiral staircase or have them tap on their wrists, as in “it’s time to close your mouth.” Then, you can respond by saying, “Oops, sorry, please go on.” Finally, you might consider putting a sticker on your computer or on your cell phone that has the letters “DI” as a reminder for “don’t interrupt.”

Bad habits are hard to break, but if you sincerely want to make this change, and are willing to work at it, then it is definitely possible. Try first writing down your thoughts before you verbally express them. Try waiting longer before you respond. Try asking someone to help you by gently reminding you that you’re interrupting. If you do interrupt and you notice, just stop, then apologize for the interruption. Keep in mind that by expending this extra effort you will be perceived as more respectful and no longer as someone who constantly interrupts.

Annie, please give some of these techniques a try and don’t forget to let us know how it goes. This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.

If you’ve been enjoying this show or any of the quick and dirty shows, you can show your support by writing a five star iTunes review. Thanks, it really helps.

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops visit lisabmarshall.com.

Interruption image courtesy of Shutterstock

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