How to manage interruptions in workplace conversations

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There are people at the workplace who do not easily let you complete a single sentence, let alone the full conversation. Here is how you tackle them.

Some people really like to talk, so much so, that any other individual trying to make a point may feel interrupted at various points. Everyone has or will have to, at one or the other point of time in their work lives, face such people. You may have prepared for days for an important presentation, but the efforts could all be in vain if a colleague decides to go on an interruption ride. What do you do when you have people around you at work, who you know will not easily let you complete a single sentence, let alone the full conversation?

Tackling such people is quite a challenge, and a different game altogether. However, it is first important to understand them. In a recent study, Stanford doctoral candidate, Katherine Hilton, observed that people perceive interruptions in conversation differently. Through her research, she identified two distinct groups of people: high- and low-intensity speakers. The former are those who are generally uncomfortable with moments of silence in a conversation and consider talking at the same time as a sign of engagement. Low-intensity speakers, on the other hand, find simultaneous chatter to be rude and prefer people speaking one at a time in a conversation.

Going by that finding, one can easily deduce that what may be perceived as interruption by someone, may actually be a gesture of support from the other’s end, with an intention to make the conversation more interesting and engaging. Still, unnecessary interruptions put people off and at times may even bring down the morale of some. Here are a few do’s and don’ts that may help you manage interruptions or refrain from indulging in them yourself.

Know your interrupter: To be able to hold a meaningful conversation in the presence of people who cannot hold back from interrupting, you need to be proactive in first knowing who they are. You can then ask the person to let you finish first or even better, initiate a conversation with the person before entering into the real meeting or discussion. Brief the interrupters on what you plan to speak and let them know that you would be keen to know their views once you’ve finished telling your story.

Focus on the group: To avoid confronting the interrupter directly, you may address the whole group instead, and ask for their suggestions to navigate the discussion well. It is a good idea to ask the group whether they are communicating effectively together and whether improvements are required. This strategy will allow all the members, including you, to raise their awareness of challenges facing the group.

Let others finish: The golden rule of all effective conversations is to let people finish what they have to say. When not allowed to speak their mind fully, the essence of the argument gets lost, and this impacts the overall effectiveness of the discussion. It also shows lack of respect for the other person’s thoughts. Therefore, no matter how passionate you may be about a certain topic of discussion, it is wise to wait to for your chance to speak up.

Interrupt, but be polite: It may be unfair to say that interruptions are always unnecessary. Sometimes it is acceptable to interrupt, provided it’s done at the right time and in the right manner. This means, when you really have to intervene for the sake of navigating the conversation well or adding a valuable thought, you may begin by seeking the group’s permission, “May I please interrupt for a moment”, or apologising for it right at the start by saying, “I am sorry for interrupting, but…”.

Simply allow interruption at times: However frustrating interruptions may be, sometimes it is beneficial to look at them from a positive perspective—for instance, those who are interrupting the conversation are actually so engaged in it that they cannot hold back sharing their thoughts mid-way. Allowing interruptions at times can encourage idea generation and innovation.

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