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“Don’t interrupt.”

It’s right up there with “don’t talk with your mouth open,” “don’t talk about sex, politics, or religion,” and “don’t overshare” in the pantheon of rules for polite conversation. But around here, we like to question what we were taught and take the opportunity to re-evaluate whether Ms. Manners’ rules hold up if you’re trying to create a high-performance team.

The verdict on interrupting: 75% bad, 25% good.

When Interrupting is Rude

Interrupting is rude when it gets in the way of the speaker transmitting their message effectively (completely, concisely, clearly). As a shorthand, interrupting is rude if the interruption is about you, your ideas, your wants rather than about what the person is trying to communicate.

Here are some examples of interruptions that hamper communication:

  • Your teammate is sharing their new idea with you. You’re super excited by the first two sentences and jump in with the three things you’re going to do this afternoon to help get the ball rolling.
  • A guest comes to your team meeting to share a new budgeting process and while they’re on slide 4 of the presentation, you ask a great question about something that’s answered on slide 9
  • You interrupt without saying a word by obviously shaking your head in disagreement. Everyone notices, including the person talking.

These interruptions (which might seem pretty innocuous) are about you. They’re about your enthusiasm, your curiosity, your ideas, your skepticism, your opinions. Sure, there’s a place for all of those things, but that place isn’t in the middle of someone else’s turn to speak. None of these will help the person trying to communicate do it more clearly, more completely, or more concisely. They do the opposite. So, zip it!

When Interrupting is Helpful

Interrupting is helpful when it contributes to the speaker’s ability to transmit their message effectively. Interrupting is constructive when it’s about the speaker’s ideas rather than about yours.

Here are some examples of interruptions that enhance communication:

  • You didn’t hear the person clearly so instead of smiling, nodding, and pretending you did, you say, “Pardon me, I missed that last sentence. Could you please repeat it?”
    Counterintuitively, this is just as important if you zoned out and didn’t hear the person. If it’s about you, you might be embarrassed and try to pretend you were listening. If it’s about them and the importance of their message, you say, “I’m so sorry, I zoned out for a moment, could you repeat that?”
  • You aren’t sure what the person means by a given term and it’s making it more difficult to stay focused on their message. You ask, “When you use the term, ‘customer experience,’ what does that encompass for you?”
  • You feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose with the pace your teammate is talking. You share, “I’m still trying to take in the data on the previous slide. Could you go back for a moment so I can be sure I understood your conclusion?”

But I’ll Forget My Point

If you interrupt because you want to make your point before you forget it, again, you’re focused on your points rather than theirs. If you’re in a meeting, jot down what you want to come back to. In a video call, log it in the chatbox so you can interject when the time is right. If you’re standing talking to someone and can’t write it down, you have a couple of options. First, you could use the principle that if it’s important enough, you’ll remember when the person finishes talking. The other option is to quickly interrupt to say, “don’t let me forget to share a good contact at ACME when you’re done. Keep going.” In most cases, your brilliant, unique, important point…isn’t.

The New Rule

Interrupting isn’t necessarily rude. It all depends on whether you’re trying to facilitate effective communication or whether you’re letting your own thoughts, feelings, and urges derail it.

If you gave yourself a score on refraining from interrupting when it’s ineffective, how would you do? What about if you scored yourself on interrupting when it’s important? Pay attention to both sides of the equation and you’ll improve the communication on your team.

When the Situation Is More Serious

Sometimes a culture of interrupting is indicative of a much wider problem. If talking over people is the norm in your organization, you may be in a toxic work environment. But it’s not the end of the world if you are! Here’s my guide to navigating a toxic workplace. In it, I cover everything you need to know about the kinds of work environments that are harmful to your wellbeing. Topics covered include:

  1. What Makes a Workplace Toxic?
  2. The Relationship Between Psychological Safety and Toxicity
  3. Should I Quit my Toxic Workplace?
  4. How to Survive a Toxic Work Environment
  5. Catalog of Toxic Bosses
  6. How to Avoid Joining Another Toxic Company

Further Reading

3 Questions to interrupt an emotional diatribe

Good and Bad Apologies

How do you interpret silence?