There are few things more annoying in everyday conversation than a person who interrupts. Though it might seem rude, there are different kinds of interruptions, some of which, according to www.changingminds.org, might not be so bad.
For example, there’s the ‘agreement interruption,’ in which the listener enthusiastically agrees with what the other person is saying. Though it may be distracting, that sort of positive reaction can’t be all bad.
There’s also the ‘clarification interruption,’ in which the speaker is asked to explain an important point before continuing. It at least shows that the listener is paying attention.
The next time you’re having a political discussion, watch out for this not-so-nice one: The ‘body language interruption’ wordlessly expresses disinterest in what the speaker is saying. Sound familiar?
There’s also the ‘permission interrupt,’ such as, ‘May I interrupt you? I have something important to add.’ From doing counseling with couples, I know that this is sometimes a non-confrontational way for a spouse to get his or her point across during an emotional discussion.
I wrote a few weeks ago about spouses who don’t feel ‘listened to.’ Conversely, one error people make in their relationships is that—they don’t listen. People who don’t listen usually don’t mean any harm; they’re just excited or concerned about what they want to say next. But you can’t listen carefully and, at the same time, form your next thought. At least interrupting is more honest.
One of the best times to NOT interrupt is when the person you’re listening to is mid-thought. You’ll get your word in, but how likely is he to pay attention to what you said? Not likely at all. Now nobody’s listening to anybody.
Like many bad habits, interrupting usually forms in childhood. Dr. Cathryn Tobin, a parenting expert and pediatrician, has a few suggestions on how to get a child to stop interrupting. One idea is to say to your child, ‘I want to hear what you have to say, but you’ll have to wait until I finish talking.’ There’s no reason not to be nice, but there’s no reason not to be firm, either. This is how kids learn. It’s also effective, according to Dr. Tobin, to thank children in advance for not interrupting. For example, ‘Thanks for keeping yourself busy while I chat with Grandma.’ Say this before the phone call with Grandma. This beats ‘Shut up while I’m on the phone.’ Children, like anyone else, respond better to the positive than the negative.
Years ago, a client made an insightful point about interrupting. He said, ‘I tend to get excited and break in, because I think I know what the person’s going to say next. But, even if I’m right, it’s still not fair to rob them of their chance to say it in their way.’ Interruption does imply that you know what the other person is going to say. Yet, even if you happen to guess right, you’re devaluing the speaker’s point by offensively cutting in before they can complete their thought.
The temptation to interrupt is greatest during disagreement. One of the hardest—yet most adult—things to do is to stop and think, ‘I’m going to let her finish. I’m going to listen to what she has to say, even if it’s familiar. If I don’t agree, I will still let her finish. Then I’ll respond.’ There’s an added value to this, too: When you choose to listen, you can then feed back to the person what you just heard—even if you don’t agree. For example, ‘I know how strongly you feel that Hawaii is a better place to take a vacation. But I have a different view. Do you want to hear why?’ Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll convince the other person, but repeating what you heard is an ideal way to lower defensiveness in conversation. It’s common sense, and experienced mental health professionals know it to be a fact.
One of the nice things about writing a column is that there’s no chance of interruption. Similarly, letter writing is often helpful in situations where verbal dialogue has failed. I have suggested it to couples in crisis, and many are using email (sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes not) as a way to get their feelings across in a less emotionally charged way. It’s also effective in the workplace. Though they worked together in the same building for over 15 years, a friend of mine and his business partner (both of whom admitted to being bossy and high-strung) worked out just about all their important business decisions by letter. They got things done by short-circuiting the pointless anger and resentment brought about by their mutual interrupting.
So, if you have something important to say in a sensitive situation, try writing a letter. Devoid of interruption and escalating emotions, there’s a responsibility with the written word that isn’t always present in what you say. Having to string words together in a written sentence forces you to consider meaning and content in a much more structured way than in verbal communication. And, best of all—nobody will interrupt you.