In today’s fast-paced society, speed often trumps courtesy. We’ve become accustomed to countless interruptions each day: expecting (and even welcoming) impromptu visits, text messages, social media alerts, or the click of an incoming call during a conversation.
Yet, most of us would agree that being interrupted mid-sentence during a conversation still triggers a pang of irritation. Although interrupting may have become more commonplace; it’s no less rude than it’s always been.
Read on to find out why interrupting can be a career killer, why you do it, and how to stop.
Why is interrupting bad for your career?
Think about it this way, how do you feel when you’re interrupted mid-sentence? Most likely, you feel that the person you’re talking to is more concerned with their opinion; and doesn’t really care what you have to say. Their impatience might cause you to feel disrespected or unimportant; or just plain annoyed if you lose your train of thought. People seldom want to work with (or promote) people who make them feel this way.
Nevertheless, interrupting is a shockingly common habit. Hiring managers have often mentioned to me that although a candidate had a great skillset, they weren’t interested in moving forward. Why? The candidate had continuously interrupted the hiring manager’s questions or responses during the interview. Even former President Obama isn’t exempt from being interrupted: in a debate with Mitt Romney, he commented that he was used to being interrupted.
Why do you interrupt?
In order to break a bad habit, it’s important to understand the motivations behind your actions. Some of the most common reasons for interrupting include:
- Lack of self awareness: Not realizing you interrupt others.
- Fear of forgetting what you want to say (stemming from impatience; nervousness; or planning what to say next, instead of actively listening).
- Desire to prove expertise to peers or superiors on the topic being discussed.
- Need for belonging: you want to be a part of the conversation, but there are no breaks in the conversation. Each time you try to chime in; someone beats you to the punch; or one person monopolizes the conversation.
- Cooperative interruption: an attempt to relate to the person speaking; by making positive affirmations (e.g. “I completely understand!”) or sharing your own story.
- Competitive interruption: an attempt to change the topic to further your own agenda; or to gain the audience’s attention.
- Everyone else interrupts: Interrupting is common in your workgroup, culture or family.
- You’re excited or passionate about the topic at hand; which can make it difficult to wait your turn.
How do you stop interrupting?
- Carry a small notebook and jot down your thoughts as they occur. Given time, the speaker will often address the point or question naturally during the course of their conversation. If not, writing it removes the fear of forgetting the thought. An added bonus: taking brief notes during a conversation comes across as conscientious.
- Challenge ourselves to stay quiet. Those of us who interrupt are often the “talkers” in a conversation. But, have you ever noticed that people listen most attentively to those who speak infrequently, but with thoughtful consideration? Removing the pressure to contribute to the conversation helps you to focus on what others are saying.
- Enlist a friend or colleague to tip you off if you’re interrupting. Although it’s tempting to hide our weaknesses from others, there’s no shame in admitting to someone you trust that you’re working to improve yourself. Decide on a discreet signal for a colleague to give you if you’re breaking into a conversation.
- Don’t assume a pause is necessarily the end of a discussion. If you’re eager to join a conversation, you may jump in as soon as the person pauses. However, some people pause to make an impact or collect their thoughts. Pay attention to their tone of voice and allow a moment before responding.
- Put a finger over your lips or close your mouth tight as a physical reminder to listen attentively.
- If you accidentally interrupt, quickly apologize and allow the speaker to continue. Simply saying, “I’m sorry, go on” or “Sorry, you weren’t finished” is enough.
- If you must interrupt, do so politely. In some cases, you need to interrupt: such as when you don’t understand; have to leave a meeting that is running over; or a colleague is telling a client incorrect information that could jeopardize a deal. In these cases, try to wait for a pause; then say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but…”
Recognize when you should allow others to interrupt you
When you’re working so hard to refrain from interrupting, it can be frustrating when someone interrupts you. However, if the person is more senior to you; it’s best to stop talking and let them continue. Unless you have an exceptionally close relationship, “managing up” and pointing out the interruption will likely be seen as disrespectful; which can lead to trouble.
…And when you shouldn’t
In cases where the person consistently interrupting you isn’t senior to you, you have a few options. If you continue talking, most people will get the hint. For times when a less subtle approach is needed; you can hold up your hand to indicate you’re not finished, then say “Wait, I’m not finished” or “I’ll get to that” in a calm tone of voice. If the person is a friend or a direct report, you may want to take them aside and discuss the issue.