I struggle with interrupting people—and I hate doing it. I usually realize it after it is done.
What are some ways to help me overcome this habit and make personal improvements?
I applaud your self-awareness, which is always the first step to any kind of personal improvement. My first question is: how much of a problem it this for you? And how do you know?
You say you usually realize you have done it after the fact. How? Is it that you remember the look on someone’s face? Is it that you remember you cut someone off and now realize you want to know how they were going to finish their sentence? How often do you hear someone say “please let me finish my thought”?
Your first step, since you are already aware of the behavior, is to understand the impact it may be having on others. If you can honestly say it doesn’t bother people, that is important data. If you realize it might be hurting you or the projects you are working on because not everyone gets a hearing, that is another piece of data. The clearer you are about the impact of the behavior and what it is costing you, the more you will be able to tap into the motivation to self-regulate.
The thing about interrupting—and almost any habit we want to curtail—is that it is triggered by something. A few recognizable types of interrupting come to mind:
- Just excited: A common type of interrupting that springs from the excitement of a new idea. This tends to be grounded in the best of intentions. Although annoying, it is forgivable.
- Getting a word in edgewise: In many fast-paced environments, interrupting is the only way to get air time and everyone has to do it. This tends to be a cultural feature and you are probably in good company. Survival tactics are forgivable—and, indeed, often required.
- In my own head: Another kind of interrupting is simple obliviousness to other people. This tends to be less forgivable. Taking notes is a good way to get out of your head and into the flow of conversation.
- Shutting people down: The kind of interrupting—when someone is saying something you think is simply stupid or irrelevant—is the least forgivable and will eventually affect your relationships and your success. The only way to shift this kind of interrupting is to examine your attitude about others and work to change it. This might uncover a bigger problem, such as you are on the wrong team or in the wrong job or you routinely judge perfectly competent people and find them wanting. Useful to know.
Can you find yourself in one of these? The more you can understand what drives your behavior, the easier it will be to manage it.
The process that works for behavior change is to take the following steps:
- Notice the behavior and the impact it has on others.
- Decide that the behavior is making enough of a negative impact on your effectiveness with others that it is worth making the effort to change. Remember, it must be a choice.
- Pay attention to what is happening when you engage in the behavior. Watch for the spark that sets you off.
- Practice what you might do the next time a spark presents itself in a safe environment. Specifically for interrupting, it might be as simple as putting your hand over your mouth. If managing your energy is a problem, try doing something with your hands—knit, draw, needlepoint—anything that might help you to stay present. If you often interrupt because you get excited about an idea, always have a notebook on hand so you can make a note and not worry about forgetting your question or brilliant idea.
- Share your quest to change your behavior with your colleagues. This can only work with people you trust. If you notice that you interrupt because that is the only way to get any airtime, you can ask the meeting leader to make sure all are heard. Sharing that you are working on your tendency to interrupt may also garner you some feedback about the impact you have. You may find out that nobody minds—although that will probably not be the case.
- Experiment. Be kind to yourself when you fail or when you try something that isn’t effective. At least people will know you are trying.
- Keep track of your progress and what you did when you were successful. Discard methods that don’t work and keep repeating what does work.
- Before long, you will notice you have made a change. Don’t let your guard down, though. Stay alert to what might cause a relapse.
I recommend you don’t try to change anything else about yourself while you are actively working on your tendency to interrupt. Set your mind to making a shift and give yourself a good three months. I’ll bet you will see a big difference.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.
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