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Why Do People Interrupt?

Do you have someone in your office who constantly interrupts? It’s important to know why the person does this to effectively deal with it.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
Episode #314

The question of how to deal with someone who interrupts you is an interesting one.  Is it rude to tell him he’s interrupting?  Does the power position of the interrupter make any difference? What exactly can you say so that you can still maintain the relationship? 

I'm going to address the reasons why people interrupt—in another episode soon, I'll address how to deal with it.

It's important to keep in mind that people interrupt or talk on top of others for a variety of reasons. In fact, certain situations practically require it.

When You Need to Interrupt

Recently I was an invited guest on Huffington Post Live, along with three additional experts. One of the guest experts kept interrupting, while I politely waited for the host to address me (as I was directed in the pre-interview).  Well, what do you think happened? I ended up with very little chance to speak, while the interrupter was able to show off her expertise by "stealing" a majority of the airtime. Many times, I had a similar thought or even a better idea to share. But because I had never done a multi-expert interview before, I didn’t know that the verbal volley was more like a debate than a single person interview. Because I didn't interrupt and speak up, I lost my opportunity to share my thoughts and to build my credibility with the audience.

The same goes in a political debate. Candidates want to get their message out so they blurt out their thoughts—even if another person is talking. In fact, they’re trained to do so. If they sat back passively and waited for their turn to speak, they would miss their opportunity to respond and to comment, as I did. In situations like debates or group interviews, interruptions demonstrate confidence and dominance. Trust me, I learned my lesson. Next time, I won't be so polite and will jump in with my thoughts and opinions, too. I'll boldly interrupt the interrupter!  

Why People Interrupt

But many people interrupt even when they aren’t in one of those situations, and it’s for a variety of reasons.

Communication Style: I have found that people who are very smart and very creative have a tendency to interrupt. When they have a creative idea, they want to share it immediately. That is, these people often just blurt ideas and comments as they occur to them in an effort to share their ideas and be sure they don't forget them. Linguist Deborah Tannen refers to this communication style as "high involvement" and this type of speaker will overlap another person's speech. On the other hand, the person who exhibits what she calls "high considerateness" prefers a more orderly conversation, allowing sufficient pauses between speakers. The problem occurs when the speakers don't share the same style.  

A Desire to Be Supportive: Often, a person who unintentionally interrupts wants to show you that she understands your point of view. The interruption is her way of showing her support for your ideas—ironically, however, she is doing the exact opposite.  I know because I used to do this when I was in my early 20s. I used to complete other people's sentences. I wanted the other person to know I was listening and I understood, so frequently I would jump in to complete the person's sentence. (I know—annoying!  I had totally forgotten about this until just now as I am writing this.) 

Impatience: Other times, people unintentionally interrupt because they feel time pressure. These are people who always seem rushed (even their body movements are often rushed) and so they speed up their communication process—they interrupt in an effort to more efficiently move the conversation forward.  (For those of you who took the DISC communication style assessment, it's the high D's that I'm talking about. If you haven't taken it yet, I'm offering it free for a very limited time.) 

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