Dear Dr. Yael,
I am a very sensitive person. I am a man who, Baruch Hashem, gets along with my wife, who is a good listener. However, I work with a very domineering boss and some tough co-workers who often interrupt me. Growing up my parents never let me discuss my feelings and would cut me off when I had an opinion. I often feel when people interrupt me, they are disregarding my ideas and devaluing me as a person. While I realize that may not be their intention, I am thinking of leaving my job, even though I love my job. What can I do to change this dynamic?
A Sensitive Fellow
Dear Sensitive Fellow,
It’s very difficult to always be interrupted, but maybe if you understand why people interrupt others it may help you deal with this situation more effectively. It is very hard to have a conversation with people who chronically interrupt you. Most people want to feel heard, and when someone does not feel heard, it may affect their relationship with the other person who they feel isn’t listening to them. Consistent interruptions can feel disrespectful. They can also make you feel unimportant and insignificant, as if what you were trying to say is not important enough to listen to. Understanding why people interrupt can help you understand the psychology of interrupting and help you strategize ways to manage it. It is important, though, to take a step back and try to be very self-aware. Are you dominating conversations? Do you let other people give opinions? Do people have to interrupt you because you do not give them a chance to talk? Do you often tell long, drawn out stories when you can be more succinct? If any of these things are true, then it is important to take a step back and learn how to listen to others and communicate more effectively; However, if this is not true, then we need to go back to the underlying psychology of interrupting. It is also possible that you may need to learn how to listen better, and you may need to learn how to cope better with those who interrupt.
There are various reasons why people interrupt others. Some people interrupt others, because it is part of their culture or how they were raised. Others interrupt because they are impatient, goal-driven individuals who like to get straight to the point. They accomplish this by interrupting and taking control of the conversation. Still others may interrupt because they are so excited to get their point across that it is hard for them to wait until you finish in order to contribute their thoughts and feelings. Some people interrupt because they have no awareness that they are doing so. Perhaps they think that interrupting others makes the conversation more interesting and dynamic and they do not realize they are upsetting someone by constantly interrupting them. Lastly, sometimes gender also plays a role in why people interrupt. A study from George Washington University found that men interrupted women 33% more often than they did other men.
As you noted in your letter, interrupting people makes them feel disrespected and chronic interrupters assert their power, whether they are doing it intentionally or not. In fact, abusive people usually use interrupting as a tactic to assert dominance and control. Thus, it is very important to learn how to deal with interruptions with grace and dignity and still be able to get your point across.
It is a good idea to start with giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Some people truly do not realize that they interrupt others often, thus if you frame your words objectively, you are more likely to produce behavioral change. Since you noted that your co-workers often interrupt you, it may be helpful to address interruptions before they occur. For example, before giving a presentation, you can give an overview of what you plan to say and clearly note when it would be a good time to ask questions or offer comments. If people still interrupt you while you’re presenting, you can repeat that there will be a point for them to ask questions or make comments in just a few minutes. If this does not work, you may need to discuss how you feel with your co-workers (and maybe even your boss, depending on what kind of relationship you have and what type of reaction you anticipate) during a time when you are on neutral ground (meaning not when you are being interrupted or when consistent interruptions just occurred). Ask your co-worker when it would be a good time for him/her to talk. Once you are talking, use “I messages” instead of making accusations or pointing fingers as “I messages” are much more effective and are less likely to make your co-worker feel defensive. For example, you can say, “I feel unheard when I’m interrupted. Perhaps this is something I need to work on, but it would mean so much to me if you would let me finish my thoughts before sharing yours.”
After you’ve had one or two conversations about this, you will need to prepare how you will handle interruptions in the future. Since it takes time for behavior to change, you will likely continue to be interrupted. It’s helpful to prepare how you want to respond, so you don’t overreact. You have a few choices as to how you can respond to interruptions. You can keep talking and ignore the interruption, you can smile and put a finger up to indicate you need a minute to finish, or you can stop talking and say, “I would love to hear your thoughts once I’m finished with my thought,” or “hold that thought please.” It is important to be prepared because if you allow interrupters to take over the conversation, then they will never learn to stop or be motivated to stop as they are getting what they want. However, if you change your counter-moves (the way you respond, which most of the time affects how the other person will respond) in a positive manner, you may get a better response. Try to also compliment and validate your boss’s and co-workers’ ideas as this may allow for better communication in general.
There will always be difficult people in any job, so if you are able to make this job work, it is probably a better idea; however, if you really feel you cannot tolerate this job anymore and your emotional health is at risk, it may be time to look for another job. Hatzlacha in trying to make your work environment more pleasant.