Don’t interrupt. While this may be an all-too-frequent childhood reprimand, you’re now an adult, so how can you make a point or justify your position when you were taught not to interrupt?
Is it ever okay to interrupt a conversation? How do you do it politely without offending those involved and still get your point across?
Despite what your mother may have told you, sometimes interrupting a conversation is okay. According to Professor Stephen Boyd, professor emeritus of Speech Communication at Northern Kentucky University, it is okay to interrupt in the following cases:
- When introduced if you don’t get the person’s name. At a party or a business meeting, it is important to know who you are talking to before continuing the conversation. Simply insert Excuse me, or I’m sorry, I didn’t hear your name.
- To get a definition when you don’t know the meaning of something or misheard a word the other person said. There is no point in continuing a discussion if you don’t understand a key word or phrase in the conversation. You might say Sorry, I’m not familiar with that word. Can you me?
- To clarify a point when critical decisions are being made or tasks assigned. It is important that everyone in the room understand what is being said, so if you have, for example, a rambler who has gone on and on during a conversation, it makes sense to interrupt to ensure everyone is on the same page. Examples of phrases might be: Excuse me, I want to make sure I understand or Just a minute, let’s make sure we all know our roles on this project.
- Confidential information that has the potential to harm others. In the break room or if you overhear a conversation in the hall, it is okay to interrupt conversations about someone’s career or salary, or some other kind of confidential subject. This can be awkward, but it is important since everyone should conduct themselves as a leader in the company. Saying something like You might not realize this, but this is confidential information or Let’s take this conversation into the conference room … it is confidential.
- Gossip that is malicious and harmful needs to be stopped. Interrupt someone who is gossiping and either ask the person to take the conversation elsewhere. Perhaps you can redirect it with a business question: Oh, sorry to interrupt. When is that financial review due?
Sounds good, but what if your boss loves the sound of his or her own voice? How about when your colleague hijacks the meeting to make an obscure point? Who do you do when the interruption may seem rude or overbearing?
Here’s a case example. How many times have you wanted to interrupt a colleague during a conference call who was speaking without making any kind of point? While this isn’t against the law, you may sense that the client or customer on the call may be tuning out because he or she thinks the call is unimportant.
Interruptions can be particularly challenging when dealing with big egos or volatile personalities. The best way to approach this is to look for an opportune time in the conversation, such as when the speaker is slowing down. You can try to interject by saying Wait a second. Or, at a pause, just jump in.
Some other techniques may help when trying to make a point or change the direction the conversation is going:
- Agree and change the subject. You’re right, Bob, now how about the first quarter margins?
- Disagree with the statement. I’m not sure about that, Bob, but it is interesting. I wanted to clarify roles in this project.
- Ask to interrupt. If I may interrupt, I wanted to go back to another point you made earlier.
- Use a question to interrupt. What do you think about extending the workday?
Make sure you are clear why you are interrupting before doing so and think about who you are interrupting. Your supervisor or manager may not think your interruption is needed and you may come across as disrespectful or self-serving. Think about it before you act. If needed, take a private moment with the person after the incident to discuss your reasoning for interrupting.
There are definitely wrong ways to interrupt. Disinterested looks may be a great way to curtail your sibling’s long-winded story, but could be misconstrued. Loud talking over the speaker can lead to a shouting match in the conference room and put your reputation in the tank. Motor mouth interruption, where you jump in and talk as fast as you can, is an unprofessional approach to the situation.
Unfortunately, there are times when interrupting a colleague, client, and even a boss seem necessary. Don’t do it often—you don’t want to get a reputation for being unprofessional. Listen to your gut and interrupt only when you’re sure it is the right thing to do.