The Right Way to Interrupt Someone at Work

The art and science of successful interruptions.
The Right Way to Interrupt Someone at Work
Image credit: Illustration by Paul Sahre
This story appears in the October 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Hi! sorry, sorry, sorry. Just want to say one thing before you continue flipping pages! Totally sorry for interrupting. You look fantastic, by the way -- what is that, like, a tunic? Anyway, the thing is: We’re always interrupting at work. We interrupt each other. We interrupt ourselves. An email is an interruption. An instant message is, too. A phone call; an office drop-by; a “Can I grab you for a minute?” -- those are all interruptions. And they’re all (mostly) unavoidable. Like all unavoidable problems at work, interruption should be embraced as an effective tool of business. And the key to making interruption effective is good intentions: You have a desire to facilitate the goals of the one you’re interrupting, even if, you know, the one you’re interrupting doesn’t want to be interrupted.

Related: How to Ask the Right Question in the Right Way

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue interrupting you. It’ll take, like, three minutes and five seconds, tops.

Interruptions come at great cost. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that, on average, people spend three minutes and five seconds (see, it’ll be fine) on an activity before switching to another task, and 10.5 minutes before switching to a completely new project. And, they found, if a task is interrupted, it takes more than 20 minutes to fully adjust back to the task. (Which is one of the reasons you need to stick with me here.)

Other studies show that interruption scenarios significantly decrease work quality. Researchers at Michigan State University asked participants to complete a computer-­sequencing-based task. Every so often, the participants were interrupted with a request to input two unrelated letters -- a task of 2.8 seconds -- before continuing with the sequence. Those interruptions led to twice as many errors in the sequencing task.

The key to a successful interruption?

Make sure you’re balancing that cost with benefits. An interruption should be productive, not counterproductive. And the interruptee should understand that right as the interruption begins.

Related: How to Say No to the Employee Who Interrupts

Here are questions to ask yourself before interrupting someone:

Are you about to…

  • Suggest a way to move the task forward?
  • Provide relief, comic or otherwise?
  • Ask for key information that seems to be missing from the discussion?
  • Defend someone who is being unfairly maligned?
  • Point out a deadline that’s about to be missed if we don’t move things along?
  • Offer someone a doughnut?

Or are you about to…

  • Make a stressful situation more stressful?
  • Speak while angry, hurt, indignant?
  • Prevent a person from making a point they’ve been leading up to for the past five minutes? (Never deflate a colleague’s rhetorical balloon.)
  • Say, “Wake me when this is over”? And then put your head on the table? And then fall asleep? And then snore? And then do the thing where you sort of jolt awake 30 seconds later and exclaim, “I never loved you!” and then fall back asleep? (Maybe that’s just me.)
  • Otherwise be a jerk?

A well-received interruption is one that places the interruption in context. And that context is the goal of the person you’re interrupting. Which is why the interruption introduction is so important. The following phrases are useful for introducing an interruption:

“Excuse me; I know you’re trying to [insert goal here], but I want to make sure I’m clear on…”

“To your point about…”

“What you said earlier struck me as instructive for what we’re talking about now…”

“Sorry to interrupt. Have you been eating some sort of superfood the past few weeks? I’m seeing a glow, and I am liking that glow. Anyway, I wanted to make sure I was clear about…” (A compliment is a transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself, sure, but it’s disarming and kind, so go for it.)

Notice that “Can I ask you a quick question?” is not on that list. And that’s because it is an unbelievably irritating way to interrupt someone. The problem with “Can I ask you a quick question?” is that “Can I ask you a quick question?” is itself a quick question. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I’m going to walk now” and then walking or “I’m going to eat this sandwich” and then eating it. Only it’s worse because you’re forcing someone to verbally concede to something that there is zero chance they will not concede to. Which is an inefficient communication approach. Just ask the question. The real question. Quickly.

Related: 3 Signs You're Addicted to Interruptions

The trick is to interrupt mindfully but authoritatively. You need to imply that you understand you’re risking taking the interruptee off their game but you know it’s worth it. Reading a situation is crucial. Which seems hard but is not so hard. “Reading a room” is all about rhythm. If you listen -- really listen, like you would while listening to music -- you can feel the rhythm of any discussion. You’ll sense the upbeats and the downbeats. You’ll know when it’s a good time to interrupt. Interruption, which seems like a random rhetorical burst, should be a purposeful act.

And it should end graciously and as suddenly as it started. Like this.

Edition: October 2016

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