Why Interrupting is a Terrible IdeaAug 11, 2021
OK, I have a confession: I love interrupting people. My reasons are twofold: one, it’s like a game of “Oh! I know what you’re going to say! Let me guess!!”, and two, I’m trying to speed things up so we can get to some other words, ideas, etc. (ie., I lack patience).
Honestly, because I love words - and talking to people - sooooo much, it’s kinda like I get high on all the words.
This is a bad idea - and a really bad habit -, for all kinds of reasons.
I’ve been struggling with which reason is the worst, though - the one that is the ultimate deal-breaker. Here are some of the front-runners:
- it’s disrespectful
- it’s presumptuous
- it’s ineffective
- it’s fraught
And, well, the elephant in the room:
5. it’s just plain rude
Even as I write all of these, I’m hyper-aware of the ‘subtext’.
That is, everything that isn’t being said - and isn’t being looked at - when those words are bandied about.
So, I’m going to go on a deep dive - come along, why don’t you?
Reason One: Disrespectful
Disrespectful: showing a lack of respect or courtesy; impolite.
This one might seem obvious (and it is) - however, I believe that the nature of the disrespectfulness is different that many assume.
Sure, it’s disrespectful to interrupt someone (and that includes everyone, btw) because conversational relationships are about turn-taking, and you simply aren’t following protocol.
It isn’t your turn yet, so be quiet until it is your turn (and, incidentally, just biding your time and thinking of your retorts, rebuttals, and reasons - ie, just plain not listening).
What you are really doing when you interrupt someone is that you are telling them that their words aren’t worth as much as yours.
It’s as much a value position as it is anything else. Even me, with my would-be gamifying of conversation (ooo! ooo! can I guess?!), I’m tacitly sending that message.
I could argue that that’s not what I’m doing - in fact, I’m over-engaging and I really value their words, and that’s why I want to participate, too - but let’s face it: in many instances, people don’t feel heard under those circumstances - that’s totally legitimate, isn’t it?
Oftentimes it’s this pattern that leads to outbursts like, “Would you just let me FINISH?!” (totally fair)
Flip it around: you’re the person being interrupted - either being cut off or having someone “finish your words” (even if they weren’t the words you’d intended to use).
I’ll bet you’ve been there. How was that for you?
As women, this happens at a statistically (much) higher rate than with men. How often do you (as a woman) go all Kamala Harris and stop others (frequently men) with “I’m speaking”? Right. Not so much.
As a result, we don’t finish our thoughts, or our thoughts are finished by others (thereby negating the “our thoughts” piece of it).
This goes far beyond turn-taking, and well into the realm of how (and whether and when) we value nondominant discourses.
We could get really into the weeds here, and talk about the systemic and structural realities that lead to all of this - but I’m sure we’ll cover it again another day, so don’t you worry.
So: disrespectful, bad habit.
Reason Two: Presumptuous
Presumptuous:(of a person or their behavior) failing to observe the limits of what is permitted or appropriate.
Tied to disrespectful, we have “presumptuous”, as in “it’s awfully presumptuous of you to think that you know what I’m going to say” or “it’s awfully presumptuous of you to think your words are more important than my words”.
In the first instance (think you know beforehand), it’s a fine balance - there are ways of “filling in the words” that register as aligning and mirroring, as in the times you finish your best friend’s sentence, and she says, “EXACTLY!!”
This can act as affirmation and validation. And occasionally this is a very powerful way to communicate.
However, it’s a dangerous - and slippery - slope.
If you keep interrupting with the wrong ideas/words, you run the risk of bulldozing someone into agreeing with thoughts/words/ideas that aren’t authentic - or even accurate.
Further, the consistent incorrect interruptions serve to drive a wedge between the necessary entrainment (echoing and synchronizing of brain patterns between people who are communicating) - it causes communication ‘dissonance’ or ‘noise’ - and that can spell the death of understanding. Eg.
YOU: Like I was saying --
ME: --you went to see him?
YOU: No. I wrote an email --
ME: --Did you tell him what you thought of him?
YOU: No. I wrote down what I was feeling and how it --
ME: --affected your performance?
ME: --made you look bad with your clients?
YOU: NO. HOW IT MADE ME NOT WANT TO SPEAK UP IN MEETINGS, BECAUSE I COULDN’T GET A WORD IN EDGEWISE.
In the second instance, “your words are more important than mine”, you can trigger at least two different emotional pathways in your conversational partner: the first pathway is depression, sadness, dissociation, where the partner disengages (even if their body stays there - as in the meeting example I just gave).
This pathway reinforces beliefs in self-worth and feelings of self-confidence (and it’s a negative effect - emotional trend).
The second pathway leads to anger, frustration, resistance, and - ultimately - disengagement as well (yeah, that’d be the pathway I triggered by my continual interruptions).
Depending upon the relative power and influence of the person experiencing this, retribution, retaliation, blowback, complaints, consequences, etc., can follow.
All of this is based on the interpretations brought to bear against interruptions.
As a result: presumptuous habit = bad.
Reason Three: Ineffective
Ineffective: not producing any significant or desired effect.
Ever been in a meeting where interruptions were rife, and by the end of the meeting no one is sure what happened or what was decided?
It’s chaos. And it’s wasted time. Disengagement is inevitable.
Further, this model privileges the loudest, most aggressive, most verbose and most confident.
That means that only a selection (often very small one) of thoughts, ideas, concerns, etc., are heard.
Research shows us over and over that we make better decisions when we have a wide diversity in perspectives brought into the discussion.
In order for that to happen, we ALL have to be diligent about the “vocal balance” in the room - the frequency with which individuals speak, and the length of time each individual speaks.
It’s not unheard-of to have 10% of the participants take 90% of the floor time.
To put this in context, take 10 people in a 100-minute meeting: 1 person will speak for the equivalent of 90 minutes of the 100.
I know I’ve had this experience. Ever wonder why you’re even there, in those instances?
I mean, the person is clearly monologuing (which requires at least one other person to be present).
Maybe they can go all Hamlet, and switch it out to a soliloquy (where none of us needs to be there while they talk to themselves, the air, and/or their gods).
Send a recording or a memo, for god’s sake. While methods like “Robert’s Rules of Order” (archaic and painful, IMO) are used, in part, to try and achieve this, the fact is that that only reigns in tendencies - it doesn’t actually engage participants - and it certainly doesn’t change anything or deepen understanding.
It’s also ineffective conversationally: if we assume that the purpose of conversation (casual or formal, doesn’t matter) is to get something from your brain (and experience) over into another brain (and vice versa) as intact, accurate and clear as is possible, it’s rather useless if you keep interrupting the flow.
It’s like a ping-pong game: you need to keep the ball going, but you also both need to understand the game.
It’s no use if one person is using a paddle, and the other person is using a tennis racquet.
You can’t get anything into anyone’s brain if they keep cutting you off: you can’t get anything into your brain if you’re too pissed off at the other person’s interrupting tendencies. #facts
And so: interrupting is ineffective, therefore interrupting = bad.
Reason Four: Fraught
Fraught: (of a situation or course of action) filled with or likely to result in (something undesirable).
First of all, I love this word. It’s not used nearly enough. It means “problematic, dangerous”. Interrupting IS fraught.
It’s fraught because of its disrespectfulness, its presumptuousness, its ineffectiveness.
Because interrupting breaks down the necessary warp and weft of communication’s fabric (OOOOOO, love me some textile metaphors!).
It’s also a hotbed, nowadays, of DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) bombs.
Because those that interrupt are almost always those that come from the dominant communities, interrupting is easily interpreted as an oppressive force.
Further, because diverse communities have frequently been socialized to be silent, when they do speak up - and are interrupted - the social conditioning to remain silent kicks in aggressively.
This isn’t a matter of “majority rules”, either: over and over again, during the Zoom calls of COVID, I have watched this dynamic play out: a “room” of 25 people, with perhaps 3 men, and the men almost always speak first, speak more frequently, and speak for longer.
Further, they struggle with turn-taking and “talking over” (ie interrupting). I have actively been observing this since March 2020, and to me it speaks to the unreflective practice of speaking whenever, however, and to whomever one wants, without consideration for others AND without fear of repercussion or reprimand.
Again, research indicates that whoever “takes the floor” first, will set the tone for the entire proceedings, and if that first (or first few) speaker(s) is a man, the likelihood of women participating decreases markedly.
This practice needs to stop, but it can only stop when it’s supported by stronger nondominant voices AND awareness (and choice) by dominant voices to hold and protect space for others’ voices. Of course, this is still putting the onus on the nondominant voices to “do something more” and it is also putting dominant voices in a position of choice (for inclusivity), but we have to start somewhere.
Change Call to Action
Let’s start with curtailing our interrupting tendencies, shall we? Even me. Sniff Sniff.
Slow down. Think. Observe. Take the temperature of the room.
Monitor your own tendencies.
Especially if you identify with the dominant group.
If you’re in the non dominant group, you can likewise do these things, but from a different perspective. Obviously. We’ve all got some work to do.
Go forth, be amazing (and be quiet, if needed!) xo dee
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