Interrupting. It can be an art or a curse. It’s an art when you do it with finesse and grace; a curse when you fall prey to mic hogs and over-talkers.
You may want to interrupt skillfully to get a word in when someone is hogging the conversation during an in-person meeting. Or you may gently make your voice heard during a video conference dominated by one or two speakers by using the “raised hand” emoji or unmuting your mic.
If you are on the receiving end of the interruption, the unwarranted cut-in may feel like a display of disrespect or simply bad manners.
I listened to my favorite podcast this weekend, Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People, and gained terrific insights on interruptions from his guest, tech journalist Dan Lyons, who wrote STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World.
The book reminds readers to cut the aimless chatter. The premise is that if you talk less, listen more, and speak with intention, you can make yourself happier, healthier, more successful, and be a better parent and a better partner.
“For me, it begins before a conversation, sitting down and thinking about what the point of the conversation is and what do I hope to accomplish and what do I hope to learn, and remind myself that I hope to learn more than I say,” Lyons says about speaking with intention.
That can be a challenge for people who don’t understand the difference between talking and communicating. Talking is easy, but public speaking and communicating with purpose can be excruciatingly difficult for most.
Men especially tend to talk more as a sign of dominance and intellectual prowess. Women generally go the route of building understanding and engaging in a give-and-take exchange. Long-winded chatter can be a sign of nervousness and a way to disguise shaky confidence for both men and women.
Why do men tend to interrupt more often? And why do men interrupt women more often?
Behaviorists theorize that men are socialized from childhood to use speech as a device to assert their personalities and establish a pecking order. Women are socialized to try to build consensus, and so they intuitively listen more.
In meetings, men tend to interrupt women more than other men, although when men are together, the alpha male tends to take over. Lyons says that interrupting is so deeply ingrained in men’s psyche that “we sometimes don’t even know we’re doing it.”
He suggests that you observe the dynamics of a meeting and note how often someone interrupts another. “And you’ll see men interrupting women. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
When asked his advice to stop interruptions during group meetings when you are the speaker and have the floor, Lyons suggests that the meeting manager set the ground rules beforehand. Ensure that everyone is allowed to finish in the spirit of having a better meeting, he advises.
To be an effective interviewer, collaborator, and partner, Lyons trains himself to balance his conversations with other people. His novel approach entails recording a Zoom call and transcribing it, then analyzing how much talking he did versus the others. If you are a podcast host, for example, this technique can help you give more airtime to your guests and cut back on the cross-talk and overblown questions.
The late Larry King, known as one of the best interviewers ever, said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.” During his long TV career, King was a minimalist talker. He would ask his guest a short question, listen intently, and base his next question on that answer.
Mutual respect is key to curtailing unwanted interruptions. In a nutshell, Dan Lyons sheds light on the importance of conscious communication, where listening to yourself and others carefully and thoughtfully goes a long way to helping you become a better human being.
Here are some other techniques to deal with interruptions when you speak:
1. Speak assertively, with intention and authority. Know your topic, stand your ground, and articulate clearly with good volume and vocal variety.
2. Project charisma and confidence with strong body language, direct eye contact, energetic gestures, and good posture.
3. Take a deep breath. Pause, open your mouth, and inhale to signal you have something important to say. This may hold off or prevent an uninvited interruption.
4. Gesture politely with your hand to let others know that you are not finished. Signal a stop with your palm or your index finger raised.
5. Stay cool, calm, and collected. Don’t get flustered and rattled so that you lose your train of thought.
6. Understand that interrupting can be a form of conversational bullying or alpha behavior. Don’t give in to the pressure.
7. Just keep talking. Ignore the person interrupting and avoid displaying signs of irritation. if someone insists on jumping in, ask that they hold their comments for later in the agenda or during the question-and-answer period.
8. Say it out loud. “Let me finish my thought,” spoken in a decisive manner, can stop an interrupter in their tracks. During the vice-presidential debates in 2020, Kamala Harris averted interruptions from Mike Pence by saying, “Mr. Vice President, Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” It worked.
9. Observe nonverbal cues from other people. Someone who wants to jump in may emote agitation, excitement, and impatience. Make direct eye contact with that person to remind them that you have the floor.
Be self-aware and concise when you speak in public. People cutting in may be signaling that you are talking too much and saying little of value. Short, meaningful, and insightful statements are less likely to be interrupted and more likely to have an impact.