Oops, it’s 9:00 AM, and I’ve done it again. That’s right. I cut off my work colleague right when she started her sentence. Our voices became a garbled, mixed bag of marbles, preventing others on the other side of the screen to hear our words. An awkward silence prevailed before my coworker tried, for the second time to get her point across.
Do you interrupt people or interact with a person who has this habit? If you answered yes to either of these questions, let’s explore why people exhibit this behavior and examine strategies to stop.
The Rise of Remote Work
Interrupting is to video-conferencing like bacon to a toasted tomato sandwich; they go hand-in-hand. According to getvoip.com, in 2020, the use of video conferencing skyrocketed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown. Recent US statistics show remote work was already well on its way to become the new normal before the epidemic:
- 55% of companies allow for remote work
- Remote work will increase by 77% from 2019–2022
- Remote gig work will increase by 19% from 2019–2022
- 30% of employees are full-time remote workers
- 62% of employees work from home occasionally
- Since 2010 there has been a 400% increase in the number of employees who work from home
With video conferencing consumption continuing to soar, interrupters have a new home to conduct their actions.
Wait? What is Interrupting?
Before we look at the definition, do you remember the now infamous CNN interview with Professor Robert Kelly? He won’t forget anytime soon.
According to Dictionary.com, interrupting is:
stopping the continuous progress of (an activity or process)
The Cambridge Dictionary takes the definition one step further:
to stop a person from speaking for a short period by something you say or do
— like the children crashing the live TV interview.
Different Speaking Styles Impact Interrupting
Not all conversational interrupting is the same. Katherine Hilton, a Stanford doctoral candidate in linguistics, surveyed 5,000 American English speakers to understand better what affects people’s perceptions of interruptions. In a 2018 article, The Guardian provides an overview of Hilton’s work and reports that:
American English speakers have different conversational styles. She (Hilton) identified two distinct groups: high- and low-intensity speakers. High-intensity speakers are generally uncomfortable with moments of silence in conversation and consider talking at the same time a sign of engagement. Low-intensity speakers find simultaneous chatter to be rude and prefer people speak one at a time in conversation.
In my corporate coaching career, I’m making the conscious shift from Hilton’s definition of the “high-intensity” speaker to a less structured “low-intensity” person. Since 100% of my work is remote, I facilitate numerous virtual conference calls each day. As part of my internal transformation, I strive to hear all voices; from the loud and animated to the withdrawn and shy. And when there are 15+ people on the conference call, it is imperative to hear one person at a time.
Why Do People Interrupt?
There are several reasons why people interrupt in conversation. Not all are pessimistic.
- Please hear me out. A person wants their voice heard. However, for people who weren’t listened to by their family of origin, they may feel the loss and overcompensate with authority and domination.
- I’m dying to speak. Others are excited and can’t wait to relay their point of view.
- Hurry up! Some people lack patience with others who think, act or speak slower than themselves.
- On-and-on. Ramblers speak in one constant stream of consciousness and take the air out of the space from others. The experience leaves listeners without the ability to inject, comment, or get a word in edge-wise. When circumstances impose on people, they’ll either tune out the speaker or try and get the person to stop talking by interrupting the conversation.
- Modus operandi. Sometimes interrupting is how people process. The intent isn’t rude or disrespectful — quite the contrary. The interruption signals the listener is actively engaged.
Why do I interrupt? Two of the above reasons resonate. First, I get excited, sometimes becoming a little too animated about topics. American politics, anyone? If I don’t express myself, I may explode in spontaneous combustion. And there are times when I’ve exhibited impatience; in particular, if my brain works faster than the other. In this circumstance, I feel impatience course throughout my body while holding in large tracks of air. Long-winded ramblers are one of my challenges in corporate environments that expect clear, concise short answers.
Corporate Culture as Indirect Enabler to Interrupting
No matter the size of your organization, observe how people in leadership roles navigate their video conferencing presence. Do they keep their video on or off during the call? Has the C-Suite in your company communicated policies or guidelines for employees regarding preferred methods of video usage while people work from home? If so, are employees adhering to the recommendations? There are deeper reasons for these questions.
The Canadian Broadcast Corporate science, wildlife, and technology show “The Nature of Things” with David Suzuki, examines the impact of facial expressions in the episode called Body Language Decoded and reports:
Human facial expressions are one of the most important non-verbal ways we communicate. With 43 different muscles, our faces are capable of making more than 10,000 expressions, many of them tracing back to our primitive roots.
In the research paper Behold the wrath: Psychophysiological responses to facial stimuli, scholars Ulf Dimberg & Arne Öhman also support the notion that:
Humans have been evolutionarily tuned to respond automatically to facial stimuli.
Our human face has evolved to produce gestures that communicate information about intentions and emotional states between senders and receivers.
If corporate cultures don’t support a “camera-on” policy and person to person interactions are limited to voice, people will, by nature, interrupt one another in conversation. It’s like shooting your voice in the dark. No one can see who is about to speak.
Strategies to Stop Interrupting
While this is not an exhaustive list, here are seven simple strategies to prevent yourself from interrupting.
- Model the behavior you want to see. Every day I engage with people on video calls who have their camera turned off. I want to keep my camera on to see my facial gestures to see my face move as I talk. Receivers need to know they have my full attention. Through developing deeper relationships with colleagues, I wish to establish mutual trust; and reduce the habit of interrupting them.
- Listen more, talk less. When rambling occurs, I feel the emotion inside my body and observe it repeatedly to see if the feeling will morph or evolve. I accept the emotion for what it is and stay with it. Only through talking less am I able to observe more.
- What can be said offline? If I’m unable to articulate myself during the video call and feel there is a lingering residue of words to be spoken, I will engage 1×1 with specific individuals for a more significant impact and to establish mutual attention.
- Raise a finger. No, not the middle finger; instead, the index. If ramblers are rambling and I’m unable to get a word in edge-wise, I will raise my index finger into the air, leave it for 30 seconds until others recognize my need to speak, and return to listening to the call. Most times, people will create space for me to talk after the person before I wrap up. Perhaps this is a polite Canadian way of saying — hey, it’s my turn after you!
- Watch the flow. Conversations move easier when all parties have their video turned on. However, when this is not the case, my listening skills fine-tune the dialogue, and I wait for a natural dip or pause before jumping in.
- Coach on the side. Identify the people on your team who interrupt the most. Ask them if they notice any coworkers who interrupt. Test the waters to see if they can discern or possess enough self-awareness to conclude they’re the ones with the habit. In your one-on-one conversations, coach the individual either through playing back scenarios from the past, role-playing interrupting in the present, and discussing the outcome of how this behavior impacts others. The point is to generate healthy discussion while helping the interrupter to get in touch with their body and feel what it is like to interrupt and be interrupted. In the case of serious offenders, if you find individuals are out of touch with their internal selves, you may consider the simple tactic of creating a game. Every time anyone interrupts, an agreed-upon fine is collected, and money raised will go to a team-approved charity. The charitable donations will increase the issue of interrupting into public consciousness; the act of goodwill benefits others.
- Build empathy for ramblers. The person who spews a steady stream of never-ending sentences was once a child. Perhaps even raised with the notion children are meant to be seen, not heard. And now, as an adult, this person is fighting to keep their air time. Picture this person as a child. What beautiful qualities do you see in this small human? See if you can find compassion in your heart. Each time you engage with the rambler, return to the image of this person as a child. Try and stay with the individual a little bit longer each time with patience and tenderness.
How did I stop interrupting? First, the habit hasn’t left the building — yet. However, I am far more self-aware when I inject myself over others, the uncomfortable feeling courses through the core of my body. And I’m transparent with others when it does occur. I take immediate ownership and call it out. Through living in a more present state, being in tune with body and breath, I am in greater awareness of my actions. Ultimately, how we choose to show up will have a direct impact on the container of the group during video conference calls.
- Adelman, P. K., & Zajonc, R. B. (1989). Facial efference and the experience of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 40, 249–280.
- Andrew, R. J. (1963). Evolution of facial expression. Science, 142, 1034–1041.
- Buck, R. (1980). Nonverbal behaviour and the theory of emotion: The facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 811–824.
- Dimberg, U. (1982). Facial reactions to facial expressions. Psychophysiology, 19, 643–647.