Someone tapping your shoulder. A notification chiming on your phone. The crash of thunder.
What do these have in common? They’re all INTERRUPTIONS.
Interruptions are often annoying and unproductive. Are you ready to talk interruptions?
3 things to Talk About this week:
1. Not all interruptions are created equal
2. What the research says about interruptions
3. Tracking the ratio
1️⃣ Not all interruptions are created equal
Interruptions can come from almost anything or anyone. They can even come from ourselves! Many interruptions, like the examples I listed above, are fairly benign. Most of these are unintentional, and though they may distract you from what you’re doing, they probably wouldn’t elicit a negative reaction.
Intentional verbal interruptions, on the other hand – like someone talking over you in a meeting – can come across as rude and disrespectful, and lead to negative feelings and strained relationships.
So how can we avoid the missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and misgivings brought about by interruptions?
If you’re a leader, one of the best things you can do is to create an environment in which EVERYONE is heard. Watch for interruptions, call on individuals one at the time, and make a point of encouraging everyone in the room to speak their fair share.
More on this and other strategies for dealing with interruptions in this week’s podcast episode. Listen on the talkabouttalk.com website, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or any podcast player, “Talk About Talk” episode #128.
2️⃣ What the research tells us
Do you remember this? The year was 2020 and Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris was debating with, or should I say being interrupted by, her opponent, Mike Pence.
This short clip highlights a situation of extreme interruptions – so extreme it made headlines.
How did you perceive Harris and Pence in that moment? Were you surprised that Pence interrupted Harris so frequently? What did you think about Harris’ response? Could you relate?
I did some digging in the research on interrupting.
When it comes to WHO does the most interrupting, the research is clear: men interrupt more frequently than women.
Sally Farley, a psychologist and faculty member at the University of Baltimore has studied these dynamics in depth and found that:
- Interrupters GAINED in status, while targets of interruption LOST status.
- People who were interrupted perceived themselves as less powerful.
- Interrupters, especially female interrupters, were perceived as less likeable.
- When a more senior, high-status person interrupts, it is perceived as a sign of strength and assertiveness. It is also expected.
- When a more junior person interrupts, it is unexpected and perceived as confrontational or rude.
Based on these research insights, Harris handled Pence’s interruptions effectively. By calling out the interruptions, she signalled that she was not the lower-status debater. My guess is that she anticipated the interruptions and was coached to handle them.
Ditto Pence. As a man and as someone who is trying to establish relative power, interrupting can be a strong signal of status. As such he was likely coached to interrupt Harris.
How can you apply these research insights? Well, if you’re interrupted by your boss or someone with legitimate power, let it go. It is expected and will not likely affect your status.
However, if a peer is constantly interrupting you, you might want to call it out – as Harris did.
3️⃣ Tracking the ratio
If you find yourself in the position of interrupting or being interrupted, the first thing I suggest you do is track the ratio.
This means mentally tracking how much you’re talking vs. others. There may be times when it’s appropriate to interject, but if you’re taking up more than your fair share, the best response to being interrupted might be for you to simply stop talking!
If you’re a leader, you can track the ratio of not just your airtime, but everyone’s airtime. Then make space for those who are talking less than their fair share.
Adam Grant takes this idea of tracking the ratio to a whole new level. He talks about the ratio of “insight to airtime.”
If you’re compelled to interrupt, first ask yourself this: will you be adding value to the conversation, or simply talking for the sake of talking?
Executive Communication Coach
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