Tips for Dealing with Workplace Interrupters

If you ask habitual interrupters why they interrupt, quite often they are not only surprised to learn that they interrupt, but they will also defend the behaviour by saying they don’t intend any disrespect; they interrupt as a matter of efficiency or because they are passionate about the discussion at hand. However well intended the interruption, it is still considered bad communication behaviour.

And in the workplace, we tend to associate those who dominate conversations and interrupt others with being power-hungry or looking to assert influence over others, which, in traditional organizational hierarchies, was likely a reinforced behaviour. If we’re not careful, however, allowing interruptive behaviour to go unchecked can have negative consequences , particularly in terms of team dynamics and professionalism. Consider the following example.

Not long after starting with a new department, my supervisor invited me to attend the second of a series of meetings with members of my team and our accounting department.

Being a relatively late addition to the attendee list, I went into the meeting with little background knowledge of the previous session other than a general idea of the topic. What I left with, however, was an overwhelming sense of horror and dismay on account of my colleagues’ meeting conduct and behaviour. One colleague in particular, surprised me with a particularly aggressive approach to the discussion, which included interrupting and talking over other colleagues, a raised voice at times, and a general lack of tactfulness. At one stage, as the discussion reached a particularly fevered pitch, our supervisor interrupted someone, mid-sentence, to say that a decision had been made, end of discussion.

As this behaviour seemed so out of character for the parties involved, after the meeting I asked my colleagues privately about the source of all that tension; had I missed something crucial at the previous meeting? When I asked my team member about it – the one I had perceived to be so aggressive – at first she seemed surprised: “What do you mean? I didn’t notice any tension.” It wasn’t until I replayed the meetings’ events back to her that she acknowledged that things had indeed unraveled.

She shared that at the previous meeting, she had felt another team member had interrupted her several times, leaving her embarrassed and hurt. In an attempt to reassert herself as an important contributor, she didn’t want to meekly allow that colleague to silence her again in front of others. In hindsight, however, she could now see that she had essentially dished that same bad behaviour right back.

This other colleague had a habit of interrupting others, she said, but rather than skillfully negotiate the bad meeting behaviour, both my colleague and supervisor had unwittingly resorted to the very same behaviour as a means of dealing with the situation. The impact, in this case, was an incredibly awkward meeting where little progress was made and, in fact, our team came across as unprofessional and disrespectful to each other, as well as the other attendees. Surely there must be a better way to address serial interrupters?

In her recent digital article, Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, offers some simple strategies for handling interrupters.

Take prevention into your own hands . If you think there’s a good chance that what you’re about to say to someone will be met with an interruption, preempt the behaviour by asking them to hold off on comments until you are done explaining. Not only does this set the expectation that you do not want to be interrupted, but it also signals to the other person that you do actually request and appreciate their feedback – you just want it to happen after you’re done speaking. Something like, “I want you to have all of the details, so please bear with me as I explain the whole situation first, okay?”

Address it, privately . As was the case in the above example, it’s incredibly tempting to interrupt an interrupter right back. Unfortunately this is an ineffective technique for many reasons not least of which is the destructive impact it has on team professionalism. An honest, constructive conversation in which you address specifically how and when the interruptions occur, and how they make you feel “is more likely to produce a behavioural change,” says Gino.

Establish code of conduct rules as a group . While some may default to interruption more than others, it’s something we’ve all done at some point. The meeting described above unraveled spectacularly due to the poor behaviour of the entire group, including our supervisor – not just one person. Afterwards we did debrief as a group and discussed some of our communication challenges, which specifically included interrupting each other. It’s something we continue to work on as a group, but since that conversation we are much more comfortable constructively addressing bad behaviour in the moment.

As workplace dynamics evolve, it’s no longer accepted that the loudest and most loquacious person in the room has the most power. Diffusing power-seeking behaviours like interrupting helps build stronger teams that equally value respectful discussion and active listening.

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