When to Interrupt

Is it rude to divert or pause a conversation or presentation by injecting questions or comments?

Perhaps your answer is conditional: it depends on the situation.

When I was a kid, adults were adamant in teaching children not to talk over others, certainly not our elders. I was shy by nature, so the polite rule came naturally to me. I rarely reached for the megaphone (metaphorically speaking)—until Mrs. M, the mom of a close friend, placed the powerful instrument in my hands.

Mrs. M’s Megaphone

During my teen years, most of my friends were outgoing or notably less reserved than I was in group settings. Even among my tight-knit girlfriends, I comfortably held back as others orchestrated the tone and flow of our conversations.

Still, one evening, when the gals were all gathered at Mrs. M’s home with everyone talking at once, I felt strongly compelled to share an amusing thought. Eager to chime in, I opened my mouth several times to participate. After noticing my failed attempts, Mrs. M decided to assist me. Getting the room’s attention, she announced they should all be quiet to “give Sallie a chance to say something.”

Just like that, they all hushed to yield the floor to me. Somewhat dazzled by my sudden power, I made my witty remark. By their laughter, I knew they’d appreciated my contribution, but by waiting my turn, I’d missed a few beats. My comment would have been funnier if I’d spoken up on my own when the inspiration hit.

I subsequently thought and thought about the instance and concluded that my peers would like to hear my opinions, humor, questions, etc., but time was of the essence. Social commentary had a short life. Little by little, therefore, I was more confidently using my own megaphone (again, metaphorically speaking) to interrupt people. Eventually, though, I had to face the music.

Had I developed an obnoxious habit?

Was I known for interrupting?

Were people thinking I should be quiet because X had more to say?

Let’s Talk about It

With all the interrupting that transpires today, many people—including individuals in professional roles—should ponder those questions.

To start, consider four common reasons for interrupting with their potentially positive and negative examples:

  • Connecting to gain acceptance, recognition, and/or entertain.

Adding a funny note to a story underway without detracting from the storyteller versus nabbing the spotlight by shouting out the punchline.

  • Clarifying to ensure understanding.

Politely asking the speaker to explain a point before the person moves to the next topic versus interrupting before the speaker has a chance to elaborate.

  • Correcting to counter the narrative.

Respectfully injecting a correction to pertinent details while people are gathered for a meeting, thereby preventing them from leaving with wrong information that will impact them, versus intentionally embarrassing the speaker during a presentation by calling out an immaterial mistake.

  • Containing to prevent the person/message from being heard.

Quickly changing the subject to stop an inebriated coworker from sharing a confidential matter at a business cocktail hour versus disrupting a conversation because you do not agree with what someone is saying about the future of the industry.

No matter the intentions behind them, interruptions often signify impulsiveness. Likewise, speaking out of turn can produce regrettable outcomes that could have been avoided. Fortunately, some meaningful reflection can transpire in the short time required to inhale and exhale deeply once or twice:

  • Is this interruption beneficial or urgent?
  • If so, to whom?
  • For what purpose?
  • Could I gain from waiting until the speaker leaves an opening?

All in all, I am exceedingly grateful to Mrs. M for helping me find my voice. Nevertheless, I must confess, this writing has reminded me to pause more often for a deep breath or two of reflection before grabbing another megaphone.

How about you?

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at https://WriteLady.com.