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Conversation Killers: How to Stop Interrupting Others

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I’m always surprised at how blasé some people can be about interrupting and talking over others. That is, until I catch myself doing it in conversations, too. It’s so hard to quell the impulse to interject, especially when you have a relatable story or a point you don’t want to miss making. Perhaps that’s why chronic interrupting is a trait shared by so many, including some of the nicest, most caring people I know. Likewise, I don’t consider myself a rude person by nature, yet I make the same conversation faux pas from time to time. Simply knowing how frustrating it is to be talked over isn’t enough to stop it from happening; otherwise, none of us would ever interrupt anyone else. So how do we learn not to breach such basic etiquette? 

What’s Behind the Need to Interject
When someone interrupts us, we feel annoyed primarily, but also disrespected. Regardless of what we’re talking about or who does the dirty deed, being interrupted sends the message that our words carry less weight than the interrupters’. And that’s partly true, at least in the interrupters’ opinions. Think of the times you’ve stopped someone mid-sentence. You thought something was so crucial to the conversation that it had to be voiced immediately—that your point was more important, or so important that you didn’t want to risk it not being heard. 

Some psychologists differentiate between types of interruption when analyzing conversation patterns. There’s competitive interruption, which is an attempt to steer the conversation in another direction. Cooperative interruption is when the comment is meant to add to the conversational flow—such as adding a related opinion or even making supportive statements—but still stops the original speaker from smoothly finishing his or her thought. The well-intentioned among us tend to cooperatively interrupt, but etiquette-wise, that’s not much better than the competitive kind. Both prevent the other people we’re conversing with from speaking their minds freely. Both make them feel that their feelings on the matter aren’t worth as much as ours. 

Learn to Wait Your Turn
According to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette, “interrupting is the most common and among the most irritating errors people make in conversation.” But just because many people do it doesn’t make it less of an etiquette no-no. It’s hard, but by no means impossible, to overcome such an ingrained impulse. Like any other bad habit, not interrupting others requires reworking how we look at the situation (conversation) and re-training ourselves within it. 


Often, people who run conversational interference aren’t listening as well as they should be. They might hear a sentence or two, form an opinion they feel should be voiced, and listen for a slight pause or hesitation in conversation that allows them to interject. At this point, the attention is on themselves rather than the speaker. Instead of wanting to make points as they come to your head, have a notebook handy to jot down notes for later or make mental notes. This is especially good advice for people who tend to interrupt their coworkers and, even worse, their bosses during meetings. (Don’t feel bad if this is you; I’ve been guilty of it, too.) While you may want to make a great impression and showcase your enthusiasm or knowledge, speaking over peers and managers only demonstrates a lack of respect and patience. 

Rather than waiting for a moment to get a word in, pay attention to the way the speaker talks and the points he or she’s making. It’s possible the person will reach the same conclusion you have if he or she’s given the opportunity to finish speaking. Similarly, you may reach a different conclusion once the speaker’s done. If it feels nearly impossible to keep quiet, try subtly putting a finger over your lips as a reminder. Asking friends or coworkers to politely point out when you’re interjecting too much can also be helpful. The reminding should be slight and kind instead of disparaging; experiencing the latter could make you too afraid to speak at all. 

Dealing with Other Interrupters
Since most of us have been guilty of interrupting at some point, we’ve all been victims of it, too. When you have to deal with a chronic interrupter, try speaking quickly so that the person doesn’t jump on a break in conversation. If someone starts talking over you, raise your voice slightly and continue on. When interrupters are allowed to do so unabated, it only reinforces the behavior. Parents teaching their kids good manners are told not to acknowledge them when they demand attention in the middle of another conversation. Just as children have to learn to wait their turn, those of us who interrupt need to be reminded of that lesson, too. 

There are times when interrupting is more excusable. “I don’t understand what you’re saying” or “Stop talking, there’s an emergency!” are perfectly valid things to bring up in the middle of a conversation. But for the times when you’re itching to make a point or stir things in a different direction, it’s best to pipe down and let the speaker finish. Few things are so pressing to discuss that it justifies hurting someone else’s feelings in the process. When the urge to interrupt hits, just remember how it feels to be talked over and open your ears instead of your mouth.

Updated December 13, 2010

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