Getting interrupted is no fun. Whether it’s at work or with a friend or family member, being the interruptee can make you feel disrespected and unheard. The good news: there are strategies for dealing with interrupters.
First, approach the situation differently based on the context and kind of interrupting. Here are some examples:
- You’re giving a presentation and your boss interrupts with a question
- You’re in a brainstorm session and a colleague interrupts your idea with a different idea
- In a chat with a friend, he or she keeps interrupting to give advice, or change the subject
- In an argument with a significant other, you both interrupt each other to make your point
- In a panel on gender and diversity and business, a male executive repeatedly interrupts a female executive (and doesn’t seem to notice until someone calls him out)
Some of these interruptions are worse than others, and there’s a reason. In fact, there are deeply ingrained sociological and linguistic factors explaining why some people are more likely to get interrupted than others.
The science of interruption
According to studies by linguists, sociologists, psychologists, and others (in other words, there have been a lot of studies), people most likely to be interrupted are women, minorities, and people considered lower on the totem pole. White, heterosexual men are the most frequent interrupters, and there’s a biological reason and a social reason for that.
Here’s the biology: according to linguistics research, men tend to think of a conversation as a competition: the more you say, the better you played the game. But women treat conversations as collaboration: if everybody talks, everybody wins.
It’s not universally true that white men go around interrupting everybody else. But those linguistics studies were getting at something, which brings us to the social reason: people who belong to a social group that’s used to having power might act with an unconscious bias. That’s where the word “mansplaining” comes from. Not all men do it, but then, not all men who do it realize they’re doing it.
Let’s get something straight: an interrupter isn’t necessarily showing disrespect or dismissal. But if someone thinks, even subconsciously, that it’s okay to interrupt someone else, that can underline a difference in status that can make the interruptee seem less assertive, less in control, and therefore less likely to get a promotion or other signs of recognition.
Strategies for facing interrupters
Which tactic you use depends on the person you’re talking to and the context of the conversation, so use your best judgment. Whether it’s a one-time thing or merits a bigger confrontation, here are some ways to get started.
There are a few ways to let the interrupter know that they interrupted and get the floor back. Just be careful how you say some of these, because they can come across as passive aggressive or actually aggressive if you don’t watch your tone.
- Just keep talking.
- Go for positive: “That’s a great question, Adam, and I was just about to get to it.”
- Polite re-interruption: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t quite done” (nicer than “Would you let me finish?”).
- Stall: “Excuse me, Jen, I’m almost finished.”
- Self-deprecating call-out: “I guess I’m blabbering, so I’ll wrap it up.”
- Wait for them to finish, and then give a nudge: “Good point, and I was actually about to get there.”
Conversations with chronic interrupters
If the interruptions keep coming, it might be time to sit down with the interrupter and talk about it. You’ll do this differently depending on who the person is.
With a boss or someone higher in status:
- Know their style. Some bosses interrupt to keep employees on their toes; others do it subconsciously. Only bring it up if you think your boss would want to know. If you have a boss you can talk to openly, it’s still a good idea to tread lightly.
- Make the focus on the job: “I’ve noticed that we get more done in meetings where everyone contributes. I’d love to brainstorm about how to have more collaborative meetings with fewer interruptions.”
- Make the conversation about your own qualities, or frame it as a request for advice: “I want to improve my presentation style. Do you have advice for being more succinct?”
- Don’t point fingers: “I notice people sometimes interrupt.”
In situations where you’re not potentially risking your job if you say things wrong, it’s still important to be polite, and most importantly, not sound like you’re blaming or attacking the interrupter.
- Acknowledge that the interrupters might not be aware they’re doing it. If they don’t feel attacked by you, they’re more likely to pay attention to what you want them to do differently.
- Keep it casual: “I’ve noticed that sometimes you interrupt me when I’m not done making a point. I wanted to flag it to make sure you’re aware.”
- In some cases, say how you really feel: “When you interrupt me, it makes me feel like you’re not really listening. Can you try to pay more attention to whether I seem like I’m done with what I’m saying?”
After the chat
If you have the conversation but the interrupter keeps interrupting, don’t despair. Habits die hard. If it’s someone in the workplace, wait a few weeks, then bring it up again. If it’s a co-worker you’re friendly with, maybe raise an eyebrow when they interrupt, or use the “I was just getting to that” line.
If you have a friend or family member who’s a repeat offender, try making it playful. Keep a tally of interruptions. Ring a bell whenever they interrupt—that’ll get their attention. Have a money jar: a quarter for every interruption. Why not make some cash from their irritating habit?