Andrea shares what the research says about interruptions, how to respond to being interrupted, and advice for how you can effectively interrupt. (REPOSTED DUE TO UPLOADING ISSUE)
- Sally Farley “Nonverbal Reactions to Conversational Interruptions” (2010)
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Wow. Do you remember that? The year was 2020 and Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris was debating with, or should I say being interrupted by – her opponent, Mike Pence.
Based on some of the research you’re going to hear in a minute, this scenario is not uncommon. AND, based on the research, I’m guessing Pence was encouraged by his communications staff to interrupt her. Similarly, Harris was likely coached to not stand for it. All with good reason.
Are you ready to talk interruptions?
Welcome to TAT episode #128, INTERRUPTIONS. In this episode, you’re going to learn about the various types of interruptions, what the research says about interruptions, how you can respond to being interrupted, and yes even some advice for how you can effectively interrupt.
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Andrea Wojnicki and I’m YOUR executive communication coach. Please call me Andrea! I’m the founder of Talk About Talk, where I coach communication skills to ambitious executives to help them elevate their communication, their confidence and their clarity, so they’ll get noticed for the right reasons and ultimately get promoted!
If you go to the Talk About Talk.com website, you’ll find many resources to help you out. There’s information there about one-on-one coaching, online courses, corporate workshops, group coaching bootcamps, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast, AND, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter. That newsletter is your chance to get communication coaching from me every week.
Yes, By the way, I fully recognize the irony here of me speaking into a microphone for this podcast. You can’t interrupt me! LOL
Just so you know where we’re headed, we’re going to cover 4 things:
1. Types of interruptions
2. What the research says – this is where it gets good
3. What to do when you are interrupted
4. Last: How to interrupt when you feel you must
Types of interruptions
Given that you’re taking the time to listen to or watch this podcast, I’m guessing you have a certain premonition about what interrupting is. But I just want to remind all of us that there are MANY different types of interruptions.
An easy way to think about the types of interruptions is to categorize them – categorize them in terms of the source of the interruption. So there’re interruptions from PEOPLE – others and even ourselves. And then ther’re “NON-PEOPLE” interruptions, for example from our technology or from the environment. It could be an alarm or a reminder set on your or someone else’s phone. Or it could be a fire truck driving by with a loud siren. Or the crash of thunder. Or some other noise. These things all distract and interrupt us. They interrupt our thoughts and our conversations. Some of these things we can control. Of course, like turning off notifications on your phone or your laptop. And other interruptions we can’t control.
Then of course there are interruptions from PEOPLE. Sometimes we’re distracted and we interrupt our own thoughts and words. This is a lack of focus. More often, our thoughts and words are interrupted by others. It could be physical, like when someone taps you on the shoulder or walks into your office unannounced, or it might be verbal, someone interjecting or talking over you. And when it’s verbal, it can be intentional or it can also be unintentional. That’s something to keep in mind – some people aren’t even aware that they’re interrupting!
These verbal interruptions from other people are what we’re going to focus on in this episode.
Let’s first get into what the research says, then I’m going to share some ideas for what you can do about it when someone interrupts you.
What the Research says
Generally, the research tells us that interruptions have a negative effect on collaboration and productivity. That’s no surprise. When people interrupt. Typically they disrupt conversation flow, resulting in MISSED opportunities and MISUNDERSTANDINGS. And of course, MISgivings! Interruptions can be perceived as rude and disrespectful, which can lead to negative feelings and strained relationships.
This might sound tautological, but interruptions are very disruptive.
Interruptions can result in missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and misgivings. I like this….
OK – So who’s doing all this interrupting?
Well, it varies by culture, by gender and by status, or power.
At a cultural level, research shows that individuals from more collectivist cultures. Such as in Asia, tend to interrupt each other less frequently than individuals from more individualistic cultures such as in the US.
When it comes to gender and interruptions, research shows that in mixed gender conversations, men tend to interrupt more frequently than women. Research also shows that women are more likely to BE interrupted by men than by other women. And this dynamic holds in both professional and social or personal contexts.
Comes to power or status and interruptions. The results of the research probably won’t surprise you.
Sally Farley, a psychologist and faculty member at the University of Baltimore has studied these dynamics in depth.
Her research focuses on what happens, in terms of interrupting, and then also how we perceive it. This stuff is fascinating to me. I’ll leave a link to some of Sally Farley’s research in the shownotes.
In one of her experiments, Farley demonstrated that interrupters GAINED in status and TARGETS of interruption LOST status. And furthermore, people who were interrupted rated themselves as less powerful than those who were not interrupted.
Also, interrupters, especially female interrupters, were liked less than those who did not interrupt.
Now that I’ve read this research, I have even more respect for the quagmire that Vice President Kamala Harris found herself in onstage in 2020. I thought she handled it beautifully.
Farley’s research also shows that when someone more senior, higher up in the hierarchy interrupts, we perceive it as a sign of strength and assertiveness. But if a more junior person, lower in the hierarchy, interrupts someone who’s more senior, we perceive it as confrontational and rude.
I’m thinking a lot about power and status here – and I’m really excited to tell you I have another episode coming soon, focused on POWER.
Anyway, let’s move on to what you should do when you’re interrupted.
What to do when you are interrupted
Being interrupted feels awful. It’s like the epitome of disrespect, isn’t it? Most of us, when we’re interrupted, our response is disdain. We stop and you can see the shock on our face. Then we might raise our voice. Or increase our volume so the other person isn’t even heard. Or to talk over them. Or even to lash out.
Sometimes these responses may be warranted, but I suggest a more strategic, thoughtful approach to responding to interruptions. First, I encourage you to Track the Ratio. What does this mean? If you’ve been listening to the Talk About Talk podcast for a while, you’ve probably heard me encouraging people to track the ratio. Tracking the ratio means mentally tracking the ratio of you talking versus other people talking. If you’re taking up more than your fair share, the best response to being interrupted MIGHT be for you to simply stop talking.
However, if you’ve been speaking less than your fair share, There’s an important question to ask yourself. Who is that person who’s interrupting you?
Specifically, what’s your relative status? If they’re your boss, your manager, or your superior. Then the research shows that this type of interruption may be expected and does little to affect your status. In other words. In some cases, when you’re interrupted, the best thing to do is nothing.
On the other hand, if the person who interrupted you is a peer at work, they may be seeking status – or influence- or power over you. They might even be trying to make you look bad so that they look good. Yes, the scarcity mindset. If they try it once, fine. But if they’re a repeat offender, you absolutely need to address the Interrupter.
Depending on the context, You could do so with humour “Hey, wait your turn, bud.”
But humor only gets us so far.
How exactly do you respond to incessant interruptions? My suggestion is that you FIRST smile and take a moment. Pause and take a breath. Then you establish direct eye contact with the interrupter and say their name. Then calmly tell them you’re going to finish your point, after which you’d be happy to hear from them.
Starting off your response by putting a smile on your dial and Pausing for a moment will Calm your nerves and provide you with a moment to consider your response. Establishing direct eye contact and stating the person’s name will get their attention and also direct other people’s attention to the rude interruption.
The exact words you use, of course, will depend on the context. If you’re brainstorming and someone interrupts you, then smile, pause, establish direct eye contact. And calmly say. Steve, I’d love to hear what you have to add. But first, I’m going to finish my point.
If the Interrupter is trying to change the subject, Again, smile. Pause. Establish direct eye contact. And calmly say. Karen, I’d like to finish my point. Then we can move on.
If they’re overtly criticizing you and your ideas, you may have to be more emphatic. AGAIN – smile. Pause. Establish direct eye contact. And calmly say, George, before we move on to hear your perspective, please let me finish my point.
So that’s my advice on how to Respond to being interrupted. First, track the ratio and ask yourself honestly, what proportion of the conversation have I been talking. If you’re taking up more than your fair share, then, FRANKLY, the interruption may be warranted, and the best advice might be to stop talking and listen. If you’ve spoken less than your fair share, then the second step is to consider the person that interrupted you. If they’re higher status, you might want to let it go. If they’re the same or lower status than you, or if they’re competing for status, my suggestion is that you follow this formula. Smile. Pause. Make direct eye contact. State their name. Then tell them that you’re going to finish your point first, and THEN you would love to hear theirs. Got it?
One more thing here.
If you’re a leader, watch for others interrupting, and give EVERYONE space to make their point. Provide a forum, be it going one-by-one around the table – or even calling individual people out – to encourage everyone to speak their fair share.
The last thing I want to cover here is How to Interrupt when you feel you must.
Last: How to interrupt when you feel you must
My first suggestion here shouldn’t surprise you. If you feel compelled to interrupt, first TRACK THE RATIO of how much you’re talking versus how much other people are talking.
There’s all sorts of research out there that highlights that the less you talk, the less of the proportion of the total airtime in a conversation or a meeting when you take up. The Better. There’s research out there that highlights how when. Job applicants. Encourage their interviewers to speak more during a job interview. They’re more likely to get the job. Ditto for salespeople. The less talking they do, the more likely they are to make the sale. And even socially. Have you ever been at a party where someone just wouldn’t stop talking, they wouldn’t shut up? DO you remember how you felt about that person? EXACTLY. SO track the ratio.
But less assume you’ve spoken way less than your fair share and you have what you think is an important point to make. Or perhaps you’re leading the meeting and you need to interrupt someone so others can be heard.
My number one piece of advice is to be gracious and recognize or acknowledge the person you’re interrupting. Just like my previous advice, using their name is a great place to start. “Xavian, I agree this is an important point. Your point made me think of something else we should consider.”
“Yvonne, this point is fantastic. Let’s make sure it gets recorded. Who else has something to say?”
DO you see what I did there? I respectfully and explicitly acknowledged the other person’s point. Then I opened it up for my point or others points.
What I discourage is apologizing or seeking permission, unless of course you’re interrupting someone who has higher status. Which, as I said, is already very risky. But otherwise avoid saying things like “I’m sorry, but can I add something?” or “May I interject?” It just sounds weak. You can be respectful without being apologetic. Be calm and respectful and recognize the other person’s point.
Alright that’s it! Did you get all that?
Let me summarize with 3 things I hope you’ll take away from this episode:
1. Not all interruptions are equal. The prevalence and our perceptions of interruption varies by culture, by gender, and by the relative status of the 2 people: the interrupter and the interrupted.
2. Two factors to consider when it comes to interruptions, whether you’re being interrupted or whether you’re considering interrupting someone else, Two things to consider are 1. What proportion of the conversation have you versus the other person been speaking? In other words track the ratio. And 2. Consider the relative STATUS of you vs. the other person. Remember: people expect the higher-status person to talk more.
3. My formula to help you respond to being rudely interrupted. It’s this: (1) Smile. (2) Pause and take a breath. (3) Make direct eye contact, then (4) state their name and tell them you’re going to finish your point.
If you got all that then you’re in great shape when it comes to interrupting. I want to conclude by sharing a quote from Adam Grant that I read recently on LinkedIn. It’s this:
“The most valuable person in the room is not the person who talks the most. It’s the person who says the most with the fewest words.
The best way to contribute more is not to take up more airtime. It’s to increase your ratio of insight to airtime.”
WOW. I like that. Increase your ratio of insight to airtime. Brilliant. Something for us all to aspire to!
Like I said, I found this Adam Grant quote on LinkedIn.
Please connect with me on LinkedIn. You can also subscribe there to my biweekly LinkedIn newsletter. Where you’ll. Get free communication skills coaching from me every second week. It’s a short newsletter, I respect your time. It’s also fresh and different content from the podcast and from the e-mail newsletter. I encourage you to subscribe.
You can direct Message me on LinkedIn, If you ever have any questions or suggestions for me. Perhaps you have a suggestion for a future podcast topic? You could also go to the talkabouttalk.com website and leave me a recorded message there. You might even hear your voice on a future episode! And I promise I won’t interrupt you.
Alright, that’s it, Thanks for listening. And talk soon!