Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pardon the Interruption

With apologies to Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (whose top-rated afternoon show on ESPN shares the same title as this blog entry), I want to focus today on the dynamics of interrupting.

While it's a common occurrence in everyday speech—and I suppose we all do it—there are considerable subtleties.

First, let's look at why people interrupt. In casual conversation, any of the following might trigger an intentional interruption:
o You already know what's being said.
o You aren't interested in what's being said.
o The speaker is repeating what they've already said and you got it the first time (or at least you think you did).
o You don't understand what's being said.
o You haven't accepted the premise that the statement is based on and are therefore not willing to consider the conclusion.
o You've asked a question and the speaker is missing the mark in their response.
o You can't handle what is being said.
o You didn't hear what the speaker said and you want them to back up and start over.

There are also unconscious reasons a person might interrupt:
o You don't have the patience to wait until they're finished.
o You want to change the topic.
o You can't resist inserting a joke, or an aside.
o It's your style.
o In your excitement, you want to jump in with a story or statement of your own to continue the momentum of the conversation.

While I'm sure I'm not thinking of everything, you get the picture. Interrupting is a normal part of most people's speech patterns. To be sure, some do it a lot more than others (in fact, I do it a lot). While there tends to be less of it in structured meetings—where the norm is having one person speak at a time—facilitative interrupting is an art form. Here are a handful of reasons why the facilitator might step in (over and above the occasions mentioned for casual conversation):

o The speaker is off topic.
o The speaker is not following the accepted sequence for working the topic.
o The speaker is out of turn.
o The speaker is not engaging the topic at the right level (for example, the group is trying to do heart work and the speaker is into problem solving).
o The group cannot hold all that the speaker has to contribute, and needs a summary.
o The facilitator senses that the speaker needs help wrapping up (no terminal facility).
o The facilitator wants to check that others are grokking the speaker's meaning before continuing.

Recently, Ma'ikwe (my wife) gave me feedback about how irritating it can be for her when we're in a serious and delicate conversation and I don't let her finish a statement before jumping in with a response. Ma'ikwe is thoughtful and it's generally worthwhile for me to get her reflections on topics of mutual interest. That said, she does not tend toward concision, and if we're in tender territory I can get in big trouble cutting in to guess what she's about to say or to attempt a preemptive strike on multiple trips around the mulberry bush. Instead of cutting to the chase, she experiences it as disrespectful and imperious—which does absolutely nothing to improve the energy, or expedite the dialog.

Since we discussed it, I've been working at being more mindful whenever the conversation veers toward the ditch, attempting to curb my tendency to enter the conversation before she reaches a natural pause. To be clear, if the conversation is easy going and jocular (which, thankfully, is most of the time) I'm still prone to interrupting and Ma'ikwe can generally roll with it. The No Passing Zone is only in effect when the yellow caution flag is out.

A couple days ago, as an experiment,
I tried carrying my heightened awareness into a Sandhill business meeting. Stan mentioned that a neighbor was interested in buying black locust posts from Sandhill for constructing grape trellises, and he seemed to remember that we'd dealt with a similar request recently but couldn't remember the outcome. Instead of pausing to see if anyone had a response however, Stan started musing about why he couldn't remember what we'd done the last time. As the person who dealt with it six months ago, I knew we had a policy and was poised to respond. However, rather than launching myself into the midst of Stan's meanderings (as I was wont to do), I decided to wait politely until Stan finished.

Fascinated to see how long this might go on, I listened as he told the story of his confusion in three different versions without pause. Although he still hadn't run out of steam, Michael hopped in at that point to state that he agreed that we'd dealt with that request before but, for the life of him, he also couldn't recall how we'd handled it previously. Before Michael was finished, Gigi offered that she suspected that I might be able to shed some light on the matter. Fortunately, that created the opening I was hoping for, and I inserted something like
"I was the one who handled that last time and I can take care of the new request," which satisfied everyone.

While this whole sequence only took about five minutes—which means my interrupting Stan, had I done it at the beginning, would only have saved three-four minutes—it was an instructive contrast with the work I was doing with Ma'ikwe to alter my tendency to interrupt. At the Sandhill meeting, my interrupting (if done graciously) would almost certainly have been appreciated as a time saver. Yet that same impulse is what landed me in hot water with my wife.

Sorting this out, I can see a handful of lessons:

1. Some people tolerate interrupting much better than others (Hint: how much interrupting occurred at the family dinner table in the household where that person grew up?). Know your audience!

2. Tolerance tends to shrink when tensions increase. Thus, the latitude you're given to interrupt is situational. In a meeting, the facilitator (see above) probably has appreciably more latitude than others, yet even here there are limits.

3. Interruptions have a legitimate place in human discourse (that is, they're not just benchmarks of social ill-grace).

While it's not easy to change one's habits around something so ingrained as interrupting, there can be surprising dividends to be had in effecting even modest shifts in behavior, especially in delicate moments. Sometimes—if you don't want emotional fender benders to turn into T-bone tantrums at high speed—you're better off not crowding other people's air space.

There are times when getting someone to pardon you will be much more complicated than tolerating the long-winded explanation you thought were short circuiting by indulging in the interruption. Put another way, there will be occasions where you don't have time to go in a hurry, and you're better off interrupting your inclination to interrupt. It's something to think about.


Unknown said...

I always enjoy reading your very personal and insightful blog postings. This last one about interruptions left me wondering. As a facilitator I often let the audience know I may at times choose to interrupt a speaker. I tell them what may lead me to do this (to do the job the group has tasked me to do) and that my intention is to be respectful and hopefully graceful in this action. Then I try and stay really consistent with when I choose to interrupt right from the get go to build the groups confidence and trust that yes I will indeed interrupt a speaker as I said I would. This generally goes well as the group has already given me permission. Also if I don't interrupt someone who is long winded or off topic it may set others off as they see the guidelines not being followed. In an effort to be more spacious with an individual i may set off unintended consequences taht may jeopardize the work that I am doing.

Just some thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I've always used the same yardstick for estimating a person's background tolerance for interrupting: family dinner table dynamics.

I've been amazed to discover that in Asian culture, talking at dinner (beyond positive comments about the specific food before you) is uncommon and almost rude. Ha has been adapted to her friends expecting this, but it's out of her comfort zone.

Anyway, it's still a fine yardstick for prevailing American dinner table norms, but I thought you'd be interested to note dinner table conversation isn't universal.