Why It's on You to Stop People From Interrupting You
Whether you’re contributing your thoughts in a meeting, giving a presentation or having a routine conversation with a colleague, getting interrupted can be stressful, discouraging and even downright hurtful. The interruption might take the form of someone interjecting their own comments, completely derailing you. You might see them start to nod and try to rush you along. They might even begin to appear distracted, and that might distract you as you start to think, “Is this person even listening to me?”
Your instinct in these situations is likely to assume the other person is rude, self-centered or a poor listener. But resenting someone for butting in or zoning out while you’re talking not only doesn’t help to solve the problem, but it also discounts the responsibility you have as the speaker for keeping your audience engaged and providing them with crucial information.
In other words, if you find yourself being interrupted, it’s probably your fault.
That’s the diagnosis that Stacey Hanke, speaking coach and author of Influence Redefined, issues to people who get interrupted often. After years of consulting with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, FedEx and Kohl’s, Hanke has identified several strategies to help you keep anyone’s attention -- even the most difficult personalities.
Hanke spoke with Entrepreneur about the common faux pas the chronically interrupted make, and she offered some strategies to prevent future interruptions, break through the noise to get your point across and solidify your reputation as a confident, credible leader. Click through the slideshow for Hanke’s tips.
Don’t make the most common mistakes.
If someone interrupts you, your reflex might be to interrupt them right back, whether you try to reclaim the floor or never stop talking to begin with. Even worse, you might become discouraged and allow the other person to take control of the dialogue.
None of these reactions help you or your listeners exchange information efficiently. They also don’t get at the reason why someone interrupted you. If the interruption is nonverbal, be it someone looking at his or her phone, or less direct, such as a couple of listeners branching off into a side conversation, the same goes.
“The communicator should do the work, not the listener,” Hanke says. “They’ve volunteered to come and listen. Now it’s your job to make sure it’s worth their time.”
Prepare by knowing your audience.
Many conversations or presentations come with some lead time, even if it’s just a few minutes between meetings or calls. Before you’re face to face (or on the phone) with someone, Hanke advises you ask yourself a series of questions:
What do your listeners know about your topic already?
Don’t waste their time by telling them something they already know -- or by talking over their heads. Make sure you enter the conversation on their level.
What is their opinion on your topic?
You also can’t assume everyone is on the same page as you in this regard. If they’re against your position or stance on a certain topic, be careful with the words and tone you choose.
Who is your audience? Who is going to be your decision-maker? Why is this happening right now?
Is the person you’re addressing equipped to take the desired action, or would someone else be more suited? Would another time be better, once someone has more time or information?
What do your listeners need to know to take the action you want them to take?
If you have limited time to discuss, omit unnecessary information.
Pause, even when it seems awkward to do so.
You might think pausing makes you seem unsure of what to say next. However, Hanke explains, people will become frustrated if you don't pause, whether you’re taking too long to get to the point or going too fast for them to keep up.
“So many of us, we speak in paragraphs. We don’t pause. We don’t have periods in between our sentences,” Hanke says. “Suddenly, we’re saying too much. We’re rambling.” She encourages people to speak in bullet points and go slowly when using acronyms or jargon that may take an extra second or two for listeners to process.
In addition to making you a coherent speaker, pausing makes you a more conscientious speaker. It gives you a moment to check in and make sure you’re catering to your audience.
In other words, pausing is a way for speakers to be listeners. You can read the room and adapt accordingly if people seem confused or disengaged.
“Pause long enough to think about what you want to say,” Hanke says. “Take a breath and make sure your words have purpose.”
Hold eye contact, even when it seems awkward to do so.
“It’s hard for people to interrupt someone that they trust,” Hanke says. She frequently makes the distinction between eye contact and “eye connection,” which involves locking eyes with an individual listener for a full sentence or thought.
“It turns into a series of one-to-one conversations you’re having, whether you have two people in front of you or hundreds,” Hanke says.
This type of eye connection also lets you know if people are disengaged or confused -- you’ll see it on their face. If they are, think about how you can adapt. Maybe ask for their two cents on what you’re saying.
One common cause of interruption is when the speaker’s body language is incongruent with their message, Hanke explains. For example, if you’re trying to convey the importance of something, don’t sound bored or speak in monotone. Don’t let your facial expression go cold.
Knowing whether your body language is aligned with the point you’re making takes practice. It might even take watching a video of yourself speaking to know how you’re coming across. That’s how Hanke says she helps the leaders she mentors.
“Common sense does not mean common practice,” Hanke says. Even if a person knows they should pause, hold eye contact or otherwise engage with their listeners, they don’t always do it.
Interact with or even quiz your listeners.
If you’re reading the room and someone looks a bit distracted, resist the urge to say something along the lines of, “Now, I know I’ve totally confused you.” However, do engage them by asking open-ended questions, Hanke suggests.
Examples might include, “What are your thoughts on the last three points we discussed?” or “You’ve got a lot of experience on this topic. What do you think?”Related: The Right Way to Interrupt Someone at Work
This type of interaction fosters conversation. When you show someone you value their thoughts, rather than simply talking at them, you build trust as well as give yourself the ability to adapt what you’re saying to be most helpful to your listener.
“An influential communicator is one who can be constantly adapting on the fly,” Hanke says. “It’s someone who can go off of their agenda based on what’s happening in front of them.” In this sense, Hanke classifies interruptions as “gifts,” because they provide such opportunities.
Make others self-aware.
As a leader, if you see someone on your team getting interrupted often, it’s your responsibility to bring it to their awareness, Hanke says. In a one-on-one conversation, give the person advice about getting to the point more quickly or understanding how to identify when it’s time to adapt.
“Jump in and say, ‘Did you feel that? That was five sentences all in one,’” Hanke says. Just as people may not know how they’re coming across until they watch themselves, pointing it out to them with a helpful, supportive tone can also make them aware. Even if you’re not a leader, peers can also help one another in this way.
Additionally, Hanke says people can make interrupters themselves self-aware. After all, if speakers don’t know they’re rambling, interrupters might not realize how often they’re talking out of turn.
Understand cultural conditioning.
Hanke points out that women are more likely to report that they get interrupted than men. This is because women tend to use more filler phrases. They may preface their main question with, “Can I ask you a question?” They may also couch and qualify their remarks out of fear of seeming too aggressive. Of course, this is a stereotype -- men may speak in this way as well.
“It’s not about being aggressive,” Hanke advises. “It’s about being assertive, direct and to the point to make sure you own the conversation, so people respect that you are confident that you should be there.”
This takes practice and experience in situations where directness is crucial, Hanke notes. It requires unlearning cultural conditioning.
“It really comes down to the individual and their mindset,” Hanke says of effective communication. “I think everyone’s cut out for it if they’re willing to do the work, get feedback and constantly practice.”