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Don't interrupt others

Yeah, like I was saying…

Imagine you’re walking down a windy forest path. You can only see some of the path in-front of you. There are turns, diverging ways and dead trees to climb over. You don’t exactly know where you are going to go, but you’ll figure it along the way.

There is another person walking the path together with you. From time to time they just push you. Off the path and into the shrubs. You’re disoriented, but you get back on the path. At a fork they push you in the direction they want to go in. You’re slowly climbing over a tree that fallen over the path and they push you over it. All good, you landed on your feet. It wasn’t pleasant though.

You decide to leave that person behind. You come across another person to walk with. This person let’s you find your way. They calmly wait while you climb an obstacle.

Who would you rather walk with?

Get to the point already #

The path is an analogy for a conversation. The pushy person is a conversation partner who interrupts all the time.

With each interruption you need a moment to find your way again. To refocus on what you were trying to say again. When you’re missing a word (hit an obstacle) the other person finishes your sentence with what they think you were trying to say.

As a consequence the person being interrupted has a harder time expressing themselves and navigating the conversation in a satisfying way.

A serial offender #

That’s me. I think fast and often believed I knew what the other person was trying to say and was going to say. I would try to hurry them along like “Yeah, I got that already” or “and then you did x and y” etc. Or I jump in to counter their point before they were done making it, based on what I thought they meant.

The feedback I got to this behavior ranged from being thought of as rude or aggressive to “You’re not really listening to me.”

I would auto-complete the words the other person was searching for:

  • Other person: “I felt so…”
  • Me: “weird, awkward, out-of-place”
  • Other person: “eh, yeah, something like that…”

It denies the other person an opportunity to better understand how they feel by finding the right words for it. And that’s a shame.

Rehabilitation #

Awareness. As a first step you need to catch yourself interrupting. Suppressing the impulse to interrupt is a second step. Awareness comes first. A lot is won by noticing that you’re interrupting.

Observe how the other person reacts to it. Some will be offended or start counter-interrupting you. Some will not react at all or only very subtly. That doesn’t mean it has no effect, it just might not be observable to you.

Observe how it changes the conversation. You might steer the conversation to topics that you want to talk about. Does the other person get to bring up their topics? Can they fully tell their side of the story? Can the other person express how they really feel? Are there things that you just had to say?

In the beginning your automatic interruptions will be too fast for you to react to. But with time, you will be able to stop yourself more and more.

There will be things, that you will want to say, for which there won’t be an opportunity. The conversation moves on to a different topic or you forget it. You will learn to let go of those things left unsaid. Maybe the conversation was better off without them.

I try to keep my mind empty while the other person speaks. Holding a response in my head and waiting for an opportunity to throw it into the conversation leads to more interruptions and worse conversation flow. If you give them the space, they will also give you the time to come up with what you want to say. When it’s your turn, you don’t have to rush out a prepared thought. You have the time, to take all of what they said into account and come up with a response. It will also be a better response, because you were actively listening and have taken in everything they had to say.

Why are you interrupting? #

A method you can try is to silently say to this yourself, as you are interrupting: “I’m not letting you finish your sentence because ______” (and fill in the blank.)

This will reveal your reason for why you are interrupting. Something you usually hide from yourself. Here are some examples of what various people have discovered:

I’m not letting you finish your sentence because …

  • … I already know where you’re going, and I have something more clever to say.
  • … I might forget what I have to say and lose this great opportunity to impress you.
  • … you’re having such a hard time expressing yourself, I’m going to help you by saying it better.

The intention might be a good one. The outcome usually is not.

Examples from my own life #

At my first job I would interrupt people, who were explaining a problem, with what I believed to be the answer or a retort to why it’s a non-issue. A girl I did this to became very hostile with me and there were multiple discussions with the leadership team about my behavior. Showing respect to her (by not interrupting among other things) put us on better terms and put the leadership at ease.

In the same team I would also interrupt people how were taking forever to get to the point. That behavior would be appropriate if I were a scrum master or the moderator of the meeting (I was not.) Despite some people appreciating that I got the guy to stop rambling, it still made me look uncooperative. Since I stopped interrupting, I’m seen more as a team player. We achieve better results and I’m more respected.

I talk a lot with my mom. I would always put the words that she was missing into her mouth. She would never hold this against me. It still stood in the way of her self-expression. It made the conversation less valuable for her, than it otherwise could have been. As a result of giving her more room to breathe in our conversations and letting her find her words, these conversations have become much more helpful to her.

I used to interrupt my brother because I was looking down on him. I didn’t need the whole story because I knew all about what he was going through. I would dissmis what he said and launch straight into the the great wisdom I had to share on the topic. Our relationship improved after I meet him on equal terms and let him speak. He opened up more and I listened better. I knew better what he was going though. Thus my “wisdom”, when I did dispense it, also became much more helpful.

Take action #

If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions as an interrupter, like I did, then this a topic you must address. Otherwise it will stand in your way. People who like you will put up with it, but any high value person you meet will pick up on your disrespectful behavior and avoid you in the future. You won’t even notice what it costs you.

Questions #

  • Which of the interrupting examples is closest to what you do?
  • Can you think of a recent conversation where you interrupted somebody?
  • What was your reasons/motivation for interrupting them?
  • Are there people who you are interrupting more than others? Why them?
  • Is there such a thing as a respectful interruption?

Recommendations #

For a week, commit to paying attention to how you are interrupting others. Just notice your behavior when the other person speaks. Remind yourself of this commitment daily (a note on your daily planner, calendar, on your phone, etc.) and bring this awareness into most conversations. This is exactly what I did as part of a weekly challenge.

References and Exceptions #

Inspired by I Need Your Love - Is That True? (Byron Katie).

Interrupting somebody, especially somebody rude or inconsiderate, can be a power play that has it’s place. It still has a negative connotation, so you better have a reason for it. You are trying to put the other person down, so it doesn’t make you look cooperative. If the other people in the room don’t agree with you, that the person being interrupted was being disrespectful or was wasting everybody’s time then they could hold it against you.