Why People Interrupt

Friends and clients often tell me that one of the most annoying things in their lives is when people interrupt them. It got me to thinking; is it just rudeness? Or is it something more? Something can indeed be rude, but it can also have an explanation – though an explanation is not necessarily an excuse.

With interruptions, the most likely explanation is anxiety. In fact, anxiety is at the root of many irrational or dysfunctional behaviors. The more anxious people become, the less reasonable their emotions and actions. So what is an interrupting person anxious about? Sometimes it’s a fear of not being heard. Sometimes it’s a desire to control the conversation. Sometimes it’s a way to avoid – or change – a subject one finds undesirable. Sometimes it’s an inability to remain quiet without increasing one’s anxiety. Some people are frightened of silence because they falsely believe it means they’re boring. Others dislike silence because they can’t stand to be alone with their thoughts.

The decision to interrupt is generally not a conscious one. It often represents a split-second, largely subconscious action. It doesn’t feel like a decision to the interrupter, because it happens so quickly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a decision. People who interrupt tell me that they actually feel some remorse over it. They don’t realize they’re doing it at the time, because as I said, the decision is split-second. Of course, people vary in their willingness to admit error. Some will defensively insist they do not interrupt, because they don’t like to think of themselves as doing it. Those who admit to doing it obviously have a better shot at changing their behavior, especially once they discover the cause.

Interruption can also be a form of competition. Competition can be healthy, but when you create competition with others who don’t care to compete, it’s irrational. Spouses or close friends sometimes interrupt to keep you from saying something they believe you should’nt say. Most of the time it’s not appreciated. Most of us don’t like being told what to do, particularly by our spouses – even if they might indeed be right!

If someone keeps interrupting, you basically have three choices: (1) give in and be a victim, (2) argue with the person that he’s interrupting when he probably won’t admit it, or (3) get around the interruption. There are numerous ways to get around it. One tried-and-proven way is to simply stop talking. It makes the point most dramatically by actually showing the person she’s interrupting. Be nice about it. Smile, and say, “No, that’s OK. Go ahead with what you want to say.” Some might label this passive-aggressive. Call it what you wish; it can be effective. It gets the point across without having to engage in an argument or debate, and sometimes it even gets the behavior changed.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s not always the interrupter who’s to blame. Some people simply can not shut up (that’s an entirely different column). They don’t know how to condense their points, or they don’t wish to do so. It might be a lack of skill, and in such a situation it’s nothing more than survival. It even does the person you’re interrupting a favor, because it saves him from himself, at least for a few moments.

The worst case is when a narcissistic personality feels entitled to not be interrupted. Narcissists feel entitled to everything because he or she wants to hog the floor. They think it’s in their self-interest, but actually it’s not, because people are alienated and promptly tune out when she opens her mouth. This sequence of events does not occur to the narcissist, because he falsely believes nobody else has the very same needs he does.

For these and other reasons, interruption is not automatically and always wrong. Sometimes it’s even a good thing.


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