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How to handle your work life full of interrupters

Gina London


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Our lives seem to be in permanent interruption mode. Seemingly never-ending news of the latest Covid statistics. Vigorous discussions of which home antigen tests are better than other home antigen tests. How wide should the net of close contacts be cast if someone tests positive?

You’d think we’d be pros at handling interruptions by now and yet last Tuesday it was the hot topic for one of my coaching clients. She was keen to receive advice and strategies, not about how to handle the ongoing interruptions of perpetual pandemic, but from those of colleagues, clients and otherwise professional contacts. Whether in the office, or more likely in today’s virtual remote working settings, each of us has likely experienced being interrupted at one time or another.


Why do we interrupt?

Each of us longs to be heard. When our voice is listened to by others, we feel valued.

Unfortunately, the online working world in which most of us now live in results in more interruptions than in person. There’s a delay caused by low-bandwidth which causes unnatural pauses between speakers. Or in large, online team meetings it’s hard to see facial expression cues which signal the person speaking is planning to continue. They take a short breath and suddenly the next speaker jumps in.

Some interrupters are unaware of their behaviour. Perhaps they were raised in a family culture where the loudest voice dominated. Others feel they are contributing to the efficiency of a conversation, summing up what a colleague is, in their opinion, taking too long to articulate. They are purposefully cutting across to cut to the chase. Still others are reacting to the enthusiasm they are feeling for what the other person is saying. They interrupt to support and celebrate. But even well-intended interruptions can steal the glory from the speaker if it prevents the person from completing their thought.

According to gender communication expert and Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen, men speak to determine and achieve power and status while women talk to determine and achieve connections.

Several academic studies demonstrate the gender differences also result in men interrupting their female counterparts more often. In fact, an often-quoted study from George Washington University reported men interrupt women 33pc more often than they do with other men. When we detect a chronic interrupter, it can undermine our relationship with that person, the company and even our self-confidence.

Whether you are the interrupter or the interrupted, here are some behaviour modifications you can try, to help you overcome.


1) Pause before you interrupt

First, let’s start with you interrupters. Are you aware you are doing it? Awareness is the first element required to develop any change. Lean into humility and ask for feedback on this trait. If you are told you are a chronic interrupter, accept responsibility. You need to train yourself to pause before you verbally leap. If you think you’ll forget your point, quickly write down a couple of key words. Raise your real – or virtual hand – to let the meeting leader know you would like to add to the conversation. Then, be patient.

Perhaps your colleague will add something you can expand from. Make sure to give them credit for what they’ve already contributed. If you differ in opinion, you can still honour their perspective before you offer another view. Focus on building relationships, not stepping on them.


2) Drive on with confidence

If you find yourself in mid-sentence when someone begins to talk over you, the easiest way to hold the floor is to keep speaking. Turn your gaze directly toward the interrupter and, while nodding your head, smile, raise an index finger and keep on going making sure that your volume is turned to a strong, confident level. You won’t even need to call out their interruption, they’ll back off.

3) Ask to complete your thought

This technique may be overlooked and leave you wishing you said something only after it’s too late. So, right now, take a moment and practise saying out loud three times, “Excuse me, if I can just have a moment to wrap up?” I recommend three times here, because you may have to ask this three time for the other person or moderator to actually tune back into reality. But this technique allows you to regain the floor without directly confronting the other person.


4) Establish interruption guardrails

If one of your co-workers has already established themselves as the go-to chronic interrupter, take a preventive strike. Before you begin presenting or answering a question, let everyone know when you’ll take questions or that you’ll be breaking mid-way to entertain comments.


5) Hold a follow-up conversation

If you can find a neutral time to discuss an interruption with the interrupter and you think they’re earnest enough to take your feedback on board, then try this. Give them the benefit of the doubt and they might surprise you. As we continue with our online work lives full of interruptions, it’s critical to be able to handle them with poise and composure, while making sure your voice is still being heard.

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