I Don’t Want to Interrupt, But…

Clients with relationship problems sometimes bring up the problem of interrupting. It’s no secret that there are few things more annoying 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. At least it shows he or she 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?” My experience in couples counseling verifies that this serves as a non-confrontational way for a spouse to get his or her point across during a conflict.

One of the best times to NOT interrupt is when the person speaking is in mid-thought. You’ll get your word in, but how likely is he to pay attention to what you said? Not likely at all.

Like many bad habits, interrupting usually begins 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, “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 to thank children in advance for not interrupting. For example, “Thanks for keeping yourself busy while I chat on the phone with Grandma.” This beats “Shut up while I’m on the phone.” Like anyone, children respond better to the positive than the negative.

Years ago, a client made an insightful point. He said, “I 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 not fair to rob them of their chance to say it in their way.” Interruption does imply that you know what the other person’s going to say. Yet, even if you happen to guess right, you’re devaluing the speaker’s point by offensively cutting in.

One of the hardest things to do during an argument is to stop and think, “I’m going to let her finish. I’m going to listen to what she has to say.” There’s an added value to this, too: When you choose to listen, you can feed back to the person what you heard — even if you disagree. 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?” There’s no guarantee you’ll convince them, but repeating what you heard is an ideal way to lower defensiveness in conversation.

Letter writing can be helpful in situations where verbal dialogue has failed. I’ve suggested it to couples in crisis, and many are using email (sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes not) as a way to get their feelings across with less emotion. It’s also effective in the workplace. A friend and his business partner (both of whom admitted to being bossy and high-strung) worked out all their important business decisions by letter; short-circuiting the anger brought about by their mutual interrupting.

So, if you have something important to say in a sensitive situation, try writing a letter. Having to string words together in a written sentence forces you to consider meaning and content in a more structured way. And best of all, nobody will interrupt you.