Interrupting is not impolite. It just is. But the place you’re coming from during an interruption can make a world of difference for what happens next.
You’ve probably had one of those experiences where you are waiting for the other person to finish what they are saying. Not because you have something to say that just can’t wait, but because just when they seem finished they transition to another subject or story. They continue… on… and… on…
Is it really polite to continue listening? To pretend like you’re listening? To pretend like you don’t have this anxiety building or impatience or need to leave for an appointment that started 5 minutes ago?
I believe the answer is “no”, it is not polite to listen when you do not want to listen.
This is, however, just one situation where interrupting may be a good solution. It’s also possible that someone has said what they seem to want to say and they repeat themselves in numerous different ways, ad infinitum. It’s also possible that they just aren’t saying what they really want to say and you think you have a grasp on what they’re saying. It’s also possible that you don’t have time. It’s also possible you have something to say. It’s also possible you have a need that isn’t being met.
What I want to cover in this post are ways to talk, listen, and interrupt that I believe can take the conversation to the next level and really have both people’s needs met.
There are 3 roles you can be in: you could be the speaker, you could be the listener trying to decide if you should interrupt or not, or you could be the third party witnessing an interruption. I would like to cover what you can do in each of these roles to create a more purposeful conversation.
Here you are listening and it becomes effortful to listen. You may be feeling anxious, you may be feeling tired, you may be distracted. In any of these situations, I suggest something needs to change in order for a more authentic interaction to happen.
In the simplest of situations you may ask “could I interrupt you for a moment?” or “could we pause for a moment, there’s something going on for me?”
As long as you remain silent, your needs won’t be met, whatever they may be. Given that the other person continues to talk, it is likely they are trying to meet a need and their need is not getting met. At some level you want to get in touch with your own needs or the other person’s needs and make an effort for them to be met. You can get curious about your own feelings and needs or about the others.
Sometimes, in order to get curious about my own needs I need silence. This is a case where I may just ask for silence until I have a moment to see what’s going on for me. You may find you have a similar need and ask the other person something like “Excuse me, I’m noticing something is going on for me and it seems subtle or hard for me to be in touch with, will you pause for a moment while I get in touch with what I’m feeling and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to continue?”
If you choose to get in touch with the other person’s needs, then you might listen from a different place asking yourself the question, “what is he/she really needing right now?” If you think you have an idea then maybe you ask, “One sec, I think I’m getting that you really want to be understood? Is that right?”
You may also summarize what the other person is saying and ask if your summary feels true for them.
As a speaker I suggest you be concise! Say what you want to say and stop. Be silent.
This can be really challenging. I’ve felt a lot of discomfort in the silence after I speak. Sometimes the discomfort is that I haven’t actually said what I wanted to say yet. Other times I’m afraid the group conversation will move on and no one will acknowledge what I said. In these moments, I’m afraid I just haven’t been heard. That’s a risk worth taking, though. What is it in you that needs to be heard? And if that’s really what you need, why not directly ask for it!?
Sitting in the discomfort and not continuing to speak is a great practice.
Really getting in touch with what you want to say can be challenging. Sometimes I pause before I speak and really check in. Sometimes I ask the group to wait with me in silence as I check in with myself. The greatest obstacle for me has been to be fully vulnerable with what I want to say and what my need is in saying it.
As the speaker, you may be interrupted. In that moment you have some options. You may be tempted to feel hurt by the interruption and use some anger to regain the attention. But I suggest you take a moment to check a few things.
- Did the other person agree to listen to you? If so, then perhaps you can remind them of that agreement. If not, then try to let go of societal norms around “not interrupting” or “interrupting is impolite”. The other person didn’t agree to listen, so don’t hold them to listening without explicit consent.
- Did you finish saying what you wanted to say and were rambling? If so, then either you could let the interruptor continue or ask for verification they heard you before they continue. If you did not finish what you were saying, perhaps this is a moment to be more vulnerable and say what you were really trying to say.
- Are you speaking in order to meet an unmet need? If so, the interruptor may be detecting this on an unconscious (or even conscious) level. You could request a moment to share this need more directly.
There are many options you have following an interruption. Dropping the story that the other person is impolite or that you are entitled to continue until you are finished will help reveal other options.
The thing I find interesting about being interrupted is that it immediately switches your role to listener and you have to choose whether or not you will interrupt! And if you choose to interrupt, you certainly cannot judge the other as impolite for interrupting.
If you are witnessing someone interrupting someone else and believe the interruption is not serving connection then you may have something to do here. This happens when one person interrupts another because they cannot wait to speak, but in fact the other person was really saying something – not repeating, not trailing off into tangental subjects. Sometimes these interruptions happen when the original speaker pauses to check how they are feeling.
Here are some strategies to respond to these types of interruptions.
First, don’t be so quick to turn your head to the person who interrupted. I see this often in groups. Someone interrupts and everyone in the group turns their heads… why do we do this? I don’t know, but if you keep your eyes and bodies on the original speaker then the group attention may stay more focused. The original speaker may feel more connected and have their need to be seen and respected met.
This isn’t to say that after a moment you don’t shift your attention to the interrupter. Perhaps there was a good reason to interrupt. But let yourself have a moment to make a choice and not turn your head out of habit.
Another strategy is to interrupt the interruptor. I suggest doing this immediately if possible with something like, “hold on, I really want to hear the rest of Jane’s thought.” or “can you wait for a minute, I think Joe was getting to something.” or “One moment, I think Jeff was checking something in his silence and I want to hear the result of his efforts.”
Interrupting is not inherently impolite. It is neutral, but the intent behind the interruption could be one to connect or one to replace another’s efforts to be heard with our own. And in fact, interrupting may be the kindest thing for us to do if we really are not engaged with the conversation. Finding a way to engage by looking for the other’s needs or revealing our own is a great way to reestablish connection.
Here are the actions you might take to create more connection in your conversations:
- Be concise. Say what you want to say and stop in that uncomfortable silence.
- Take time before you speak to really get in touch with what you want to say.
- Keep your eyes on the original speaker when he/she is interrupted. Take a moment to decide to shift your attention or not.
- Interrupt the interruptor and bring attention back to the original speaker.
- Let people take time in silence to get in touch with what they want to say.
- Interrupt to get the other person more fully or express your needs and make a request.