Have you ever been interrupted when speaking? How did it make you feel? Interruptions are becoming a staple in our interpersonal communications. It is not hard to find egregious examples of how we (as perfectly imperfect human beings) interrupt each other, and often these are difficult news items and video clips to consume because each and every one of us has been guilty of interrupting someone at least once in the last few days (directly by butting in with our voice or “loud” body language, or indirectly by not paying enough/any attention to what is being said). When we see these examples we feel the moral imperative of giving each other the respect we all deserve in conversation…and yet we know we may interrupt others in the future if we have something to say. Pay attention through the next 24 hours and see if you have a good understanding of yourself in conversation – how often do you interrupt someone?
If you would like to take this exploration one step further, see if there is a pattern to your interruptions. I’ll share from my own awareness exploration; I am much more likely to interrupt a child or family member then I am a stranger or business colleague. Comfort level is a factor here, but if I am being awake to the way this impacts my relationships with the people I love the most I can recognize the need to re-think how I show up in conversations with my loved ones. It also sets a terrible example when I assume interrupting one segment of people in my life is acceptable, when really it is not a conscious way to be in conversation with anyone. It points to the intent to listen to respond (versus listening to understand), essentially marginalizing another individual. Self awareness plays a very big part in managing this so we can be compassionate and attentive with each other, fostering mutual respect and trust; if this is something we practice consistently it allows others to practice this value with us. We admire those who demonstrate grace under pressure; managing the impulse to interrupt plays a part in this. It demonstrates respect, first for oneself and secondly for others. That is what makes those video clips of blatant interruptions so hard to watch – the absolute lack of respect. Who are you most likely to interrupt? It can tell you a lot about how you “show up” both at home and in your professional life.
The flip side of this is knowing how to handle being interrupted – it can be hard to navigate this, especially as we are often caught off guard, focused on forming cohesive thoughts into spoken words when BOOM! Interruption. A colleague of mine demonstrated the best example of how to manage this circumstance. She was directly challenged by a peer during what was supposed to be a brief update on her team’s deliverables. Everyone else in the room received the courtesy of uninterrupted time to express their updates, now it was her turn. After the interruption, she took a deep breath, smiled and said “I appreciate that you are intrigued by something I have said, but I would ask that all questions and comments be held until my update is complete, as only then will I be able to give my full attention to addressing your concern.” She was not interrupted again, and at the end of her brief update she did address the questions and comments in the room. By asking for the time to really address them after her update, she was focused on providing thorough answers, rather than trying to juggle answering a question quickly, remembering where she was in her update and moving on. She respected herself first and all the others in the room as well. She also honoured the importance of the work they were doing together, behaving consistently with what she wanted from their working relationship. Win/win/win.
As leaders we hold a key role in ensuring our workplace interactions are built on mutual respect and trust. Being ready to politely and professionally defend your time in a conversation (or presentation) is a demonstration of self-respect and self-confidence. Helping others to do the same is core to modelling strong leadership behaviours. When interruptions occur (and the person speaking does not address the interrupter by politely asking them to wait), help others to remember the rules of engagement in meetings. If you are leading the meeting, request that the interrupter hold off until there is a natural point to address their item and invite the speaker to continue. Too often in business we see interruptions used as a way to see what someone is “made of”, if they can’t handle the interruption(s) then it is viewed as a challenge to their suitability for the role or participation in the meeting (even their place in the organization), when in reality it just means a colleague is being rude and no one is calling them on it. When interruptions occur we all have the opportunity to support a colleague by requesting that the speaker continue and address any questions at the end. Leadership is something we all have at our fingertips, when we choose to exercise it. Strong leaders are awake to these occurrences and ready to sustain mutual respect and trust in communal spaces, ensuring every voice is welcomed and no one needs to be interrupted.
Becoming aware of whom you are most likely to interrupt, and how often you do this is the first step to reducing the marginalization this creates. Standing up for yourself in clear professional terms helps to remind others that being given the opportunity to speak without interruption is important and necessary in sustaining professional relationships, keeping trust in tact. Taking this one step further and supporting colleagues in fending off interruptions allows everyone to speak without being interrupted. Practicing these simple steps builds healthier workplaces where mutual respect and trust can flourish - and we all deserve to work in places where respect is the foundation.