Interrupting is a conversational minefield. Do it thoughtlessly and you’ll create resentment. Avoid it completely and you’ll become a doormat. Fortunately, the fine art of interrupting a conversation at work is an easily-learned skill.
There are four valid situations where it’s appropriate to interrupt a coworker during a conversation:
During one-on-one conversations:
1. Time. The speaker is wasting your time by talking about things you consider irrelevant.
2. Interest. The speaker is wasting your time by talking about things you consider boring.
During meetings with more than one person:
3. Focus. The speaker is wasting everyone’s time by directing attention to away from the agenda.
4. Status. You feel the need to establish your superiority over the speaker in the pecking order.
I realize that #4 might seem negative and narcissistic but I’m writing about corporate realpolitik rather than an ideal world. Also, it’s best you know what kind of interrupting is the most likely to offend and irritate.
Each these four situations demands a different “best” approach, an approach that does the job (i.e. interrupts successfully) and also leaves the emotional residue that is the most advantageous (to you).
1. How to interrupt when you’re too busy to listen.
Your goal is to end the conversation and break away so that you can do something other than talk to the coworker. Your challenge is doing this without making the coworker feel as if they’re unimportant.
To do this, you wait for the next conversational pause and then bring up your time conflict in a way that places the blame on yourself rather than the coworker.
Example: “OMG. I really want to hear the rest of this but I can’t concentrate while I have to do ‘X’ right away. You understand, right?”
The question at the end is structured so that it’s almost impossible for the coworker not to say “yes,” thereby giving you full social permission to leave the conversation and go do whatever you want to do. Unless the subject matter was highly important to the coworker, it’s unlikely that the coworker will bring it up again.
2. How to interrupt somebody who’s boring.
Your goal here is not necessarily to leave the conversation but rather to change the subject matter of the conversation to something you find more interesting. Your challenge is to do this without the coworker realizing that you think they’re boring.
To do this, you wait for the next conversational pause, express interest in the subject matter that you find boring, postpone the continuation of that part of the conversation to some vague point in the future, and then change the subject.
- “Hold that thought!” (change subject)
- “Wait! Put a pin in that.” (change subject)
- “Just a second.” (change subject)
With any luck, your coworker will “resonate” with the new subject matter that you’ve brought up rather than return to the subject matter that you find boring. Note: I have used this technique hundreds of times to deflect conversations about sports, a subject matter that I personally find a bit tedious.
3. How to interrupt an unfocused business meeting.
The Scylla and Charybdis of business conversations are:
- Chit-chat. While a bit of chit-chat can break the ice and make people feel more comfortable, if it goes on too long it ends up wasting everyone’s time, even if the chit-chat is work-related.
- Rat-holes. These are unresolvable topics that nevertheless generate discussion and about which everyone has an opinion. For instance, it’s a rat-hole when middle managers, during a budget meeting, end up discussing whether the corporate strategy makes sense. It’s a pointless discussion because their job is to execute the strategy not set the strategy.
Your goal when confronted with either chit-chat or rat-holes is to remind the group of the purpose of the meeting and refocus the meeting on that purpose.
It need hardly be said that this is easier when the meeting s an agenda, preferably one that’s written down. However, most meetings have at least some ostensible purpose, which can be used to refocus the meeting.
Your challenge is to do this without seeming dismissive of the social benefit that your coworkers are extracting from the unfocused conversation.
And that social benefit can be significant. People like chit-chat and rat-holes because such discussions allow them to feel as if they’re part of a community and also that they’re getting something done… without the burden of actually having to do something, other than gossip and bloviate. Unlike focused discussions, chit-chat and rat-holes never result in action items.
The best approach here, therefore, is to recognize the value of the chit-chat or the rat-hole, before reminding the group of the meeting’s purpose.
- Example (for chit-chat): “This is a really interesting discussion but we need to get to back to [agenda].’
- Example (for rat-holes): “Let’s table this discussion for now and get back to [agenda].”
Note that neither approach belittles the group for being unfocused but instead reaffirms the (limited) value of the discussion before pointing out that something more important beckons.
4. How to interrupt to establish dominance.
I’m surfacing this scenario explicitly because when you interrupt your coworkers thoughtlessly or gracelessly, they are likely to assume that you’re interrupting as an attempt to establish dominance.
As indeed might be the case, even if you’re not aware of it. For example, according to the New York Times, the phenomenon of men interrupting women in business meetings is “universal” and women, quite rightly, interpret such behavior as a sign of disrespect and an attempt to establish male dominance.
I’m not sure that most men realize that they’re doing this. Not that being clueless is an excuse. I might note that men also interrupt other men–not as frequently, but for the same reason, to establish dominance and their place in the pecking order. I think, though, that when men interrupt other men they’re more conscious that it’s a power move.
In any case and regardless of your gender, unless you want to make enemies of your coworkers, you want to avoid seeming as if you’re trying to establish dominance, unless you are explicitly and intentionally attempting to establish dominance.
In this case, you simply interrupt by talking over the other person and continue to talk, raising your voice as necessary to drown out your coworker, until your coworker cedes you the floor. It’s like the kid’s game of “Stare;” the first person to blink loses.
Needless to say, interrupting in this way isn’t going to make you any friends among your coworkers but that’s not the point. The point is to humiliate them and get your way. So, in this case, my advice is if you’re determined to be a jerk, be one.
But if you don’t want to come off like a jerk every time you interrupt a coworker, use the more socially-acceptable methods from earlier in the column.