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Why your understanding of interruptions may be all wrong

Not all interruptions are created equal. Here’s why the person cutting you off may be your biggest advocate.

Why your understanding of interruptions may be all wrong
[Source photo: Imansyah Muhamad Putera/Unsplash]
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Few things are more irritating than trying to make a point or deliver a presentation and having someone cut you off with an interruption. We typically think of interruptions as rude or disrespectful, and sometimes they are. But not all interruptions are created equal. And some might even be signs of agreement or respect.

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“The very concept of what is an interruption is complicated,” says Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work and other books. Sometimes, it’s clear, such as when someone speaks over you and then tells their own story. Other times we may mistake different communication styles for interruptions. And that can get in the way of our understanding one another, Tannen says.

Is it really an interruption?

Tannen recently got some social media love because of her discussions of “high engagement” listeners and the concept of “cooperative overlapping,”  a term she coined. Cooperative overlappers are those folks who have a tendency to inject agreement or to “talk along” while listening. So, when you’re speaking and a listener jumps in with agreement or an outburst that supports your point, it’s often a sign of being engaged rather than rude. Such high-engagement listeners are usually encouraging you to go on and may just be very excited about what you’re saying.

Another interaction often mistaken for an interruption is when listeners have a different sense of how long a pause should be between turns, Tannen says. “The one who is expecting a shorter pause thinks the other one is finished or doesn’t want the floor,” she explains. And the person who was taking a longer pause when their counterpart started speaking thinks they’re not getting a chance to talk. This isn’t a purposeful interruption. It’s a consequence of different styles. And those speakers who are on the “high considerateness” end of the listener spectrum—those who wait to be sure their counterpart is finished speaking before speaking themselves—may find it hard to get a word in edgewise, especially if the speaker doesn’t use long pauses.

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And, sometimes, you may be dealing with someone who is truly interrupting you, says communication expert David Hiatt, director of franchise development at Sandler Systems and author of From the Board Room to the Living Room: Communicate with Skill for Positive Outcomes. Combative listeners may be adversarial and argumentative. Competitive listeners aren’t really listening to you. They’re really just waiting for their turn to talk. “There’s a fine line between being a competitive listener, which means you’re not really listening, just waiting to get your point of view out, and a combative listener, who will just go ahead and interrupt you no matter what,” Hiatt says.

Interruption implications

When evaluating the nature of an interruption, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, active listening is often encouraged, especially among leaders. During active listening, the individual is paying close attention to what you’re saying and ensuring that they understand what you’re trying to convey, Hiatt says. In such cases, it’s not unusual to interject to ask questions or ask someone to repeat a point. “Active listening almost requires certain kinds of interruptions. If you and I were having a conversation, and you said something that I really did not understand, it’s appropriate for me to say, ‘Hey, can we call a timeout here? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that,'” he says.

But other interruptions can tell us about how others perceive us. Researchers Heather C. Vough, an associate professor at George Mason University’s business school, and Harshad Puranik, associate professor of managerial studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, study identity in the workplace. We engage in “identity work” regularly in the workplace. They define identity work as anything that people can use to establish, maintain, or repair how you see yourself or how other people see you at work. The type of identity you’re trying to create at work “can influence what type of identity you are emphasizing to your conversations or interactions,” Puranik says.

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Within the context of identity at work, interruptions can tell us something about the way others value us and our communication, Vough says. “It’s chosen disrespect,” she says.

Interruptions may have gender-related components in the workplace, as well. Several studies have shown that women get interrupted more than men—even at the highest levels of their profession. A 2017 study found that even among Supreme Court justices, women are interrupted more. In fact, not only were they interrupted more by their fellow justices—they were also interrupted more by the male advocates who appeared before them, which is against the rules of the court, according to the study.

Managing interruptions

Interruptions are complicated by a range of issues, from your gender and style of speaking to the engagement of your listener and your perceived value in the workplace. The first key to navigating that complexity is to be aware that not every verbal intersection is an interruption. If you’re dealing with a highly engaged listener, you may need to allow them to agree or talk over you somewhat to emphasize a point or ask a question.

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Hiatt says it’s tough to set “rules” for interruptions, but if you need to cut off someone who’s speaking, be respectful, he says. “Acknowledging the interruption can alleviate some of the awkwardness,” he says. And work on keeping the interruption useful and conversational and not let it get adversarial, he says.

Tannen says that both speakers and listeners need to understand that the interruption may not be intended to disrupt the conversation. In some cases, workplace guidelines about how to indicate when someone is finished speaking or how to manage interruptions when they happen can be helpful.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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