March 21, 2024

The Art of Skillful Interrupting.

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Have you noticed the paradigm in our culture that has us believing interrupting someone is always and forever bad?

We’ve heard the admonishment “Don’t interrupt!” from teachers, parents, and other well-meaning adults.

Well, I’m here to champion the paradigm of positive, healthy, and desirable interrupting. Done skillfully, it can result in more connection, more empathy, and more joy and aliveness.

It can be CPR to a dying conversation, helping not just the listener avoid lapsing into a conversation coma, but potentially helping the speaker to get reanimated and engaged in what was a lifeless conversation. It can also be part of a process of providing feedback to the speaker that what he or she is saying really matters and is being “gotten.” And lastly, in a point I’ll touch on just briefly below, skillful interruption can be part of a profound healing of deeply entrenched patterns that no longer serve us.

There is, of course, non-skillful and non-empathetic interruption, which is unpleasant, unconscious, and does not create increased connection. Unskillful interruption is mostly a reflex or habit that is aimed at taking the attention away from whomever is speaking and bringing attention to one’s self and one’s own agenda.

In what follows, I’ll look at five scenarios where skillful interruption may be appropriate, and offer some language one might use in each situation. I’ll end with some tips and exercises to help build the muscle of skillful interruption.

A first scenario to consider is when a person is repeating himself or herself, belaboring a point that has already been clearly made and clearly understood. In such a situation, interruption might look something like this: “Can I interrupt you for a moment? I think I understand what you’re trying to say and want to see if I’ve gotten it.” This language helps the speaker relax, knowing that you’re not wanting to rip attention away from what he or she is saying, but actually want to have a more precise focus on what is being said and understand what’s important to the speaker.

Continue by saying, “What I’m hearing is….” and then repeat, as concisely as you can, what points you understood the speaker was trying to make, and what you understand might be important to the speaker. After reflecting the basics of what you understood was being communicated, you can then inquire, “Did I get that right?” Oftentimes, such an interruption and reflecting back what you heard will bring a pause to an unconscious monologue filled with lots of repetition, and allow the conversation to move onto something that is new and more alive.

Another situation where interruption can be used skillfully is when you’re not clear what the point is of the person’s sharing, or what they might be wanting in response to their sharing. Language one could use might sound something like this: “Can I pause you for a moment? I’m not sure I’m clear on what’s important to you in what you’re sharing.” You can then offer some guesses such as, “Are you simply just sharing information that you find interesting? Are you sharing information perhaps in order to educate me, not being sure of whether I know it? Or might you be wanting empathy for how what you’re sharing affects you?” Notice that in this scenario, again, you’re not wanting to take the attention away from the person, but rather making an explicit attempt to understand what’s important to the person.

There is also a place for skillful interruption in a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable, and even riveting conversation when more information is being shared than you can absorb or take in. Here, again, there is no desire to take away the spotlight from the speaker, but simply a desire to slow down the flow of information so you can take in and understand what is being shared. An interruption in these situations might go as follows: “Can I pause you for a moment? I want to make sure that I’m understanding what you’ve shared so far…” and then give a recap of the key points you understood.

You might follow-up the recap with, “Did I get that right?” After you get either confirmation (or correction, if you didn’t get it right) from the speaker they can continue. If the information starts to get overwhelming again you can repeat the process, slowing it down in order to really “catch” what is being shared. My experience is that this form of interruption, rather than being viewed as unwanted, most often results in the speaker appreciating the keen interest I’m showing in understanding what is being shared.

A fourth scenario where interruption is an important tool is when there are issues around sharing time in a group setting. Language used might sound something like, “Excuse me for a moment. I’m aware that we only have a limited amount of time, and I want to make sure that others have a chance to share. Can we check in with some others to see what’s coming up for them?” Interruption in this context can create safety and confidence for participants in a group, knowing that someone is holding the container so that one person does not dominate the room.

The last scenario I’d like to address, which can be a particularly challenging one, is when you’re in a conversation with someone who either doesn’t have the interest or the capacity to pay attention to and be interested in what’s going on for you (i.e. a narcissist). Skillful interrupting can be a great asset for people who grew up with a narcissistic caregiver. As we cultivate the awareness that our voice matters, and “we matter,” tolerating narcissism becomes less and less of an option.

In these situations, interruption is a way of taking up space and declaring, “I’m here too.” It is a bold and courageous action, the psychological significance of which is profound and wonderful (and outside the scope of this article to fully explore).

As I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that I want my participation in a conversation to matter, I’ve become more bold and direct when interrupting, and may even say something like: “I’ve noticed you’ve been sharing for about 10 minutes, and haven’t checked in with me regarding the impact of what you’re sharing, or whether I’m interested, or what I think or might have to say about the topic. I wonder if you have an interest in hearing what’s going on for me?”

This question may result in more words about how “of course” there’s an interest, or more words defending the speaker’s reasons for having gone on so long, but in the end, if it doesn’t result in a sustained ability to be curious about what’s going on for me, and the ability to make space for that, I’m finding myself less and less interested in spending time in those “conversations.”

Now that we’ve covered some scenarios where interruption can be used skillfully, here are some tips and insights that can support you in becoming more skilled in the art of interruption.

The first advice I offer when sharing about skillful interruption with my coaching clients is to be compassionate with yourself, and honor the courage that it takes to interrupt, sometimes not just the speaker, but a lifelong pattern of not taking up space. As mentioned earlier, interrupting is not a well-developed muscle, and there is the dominant paradigm of “it’s bad to interrupt.” This is especially true for those of us who have co-dependent or people-pleasing tendencies. Interrupting someone may seem unnatural, uncomfortable, or in some cases virtually unthinkable! Keep remembering it is a muscle that can be developed through practice, and that it can be in service of more connection and more understanding.

One practice I’ve developed to help people build the muscle of interrupting is as follows: I’ll read a passage from a random book, or just start monologuing on some topic, and have the person I’m coaching say, right in the middle of my speaking, “Hey, Mark, I’d like to interrupt you for a second….” It’s surprisingly hard to get some people to do this, even when I’m specifically requesting it, and feeding them the exact words to use, with no possibility of the interruption offending me. Practicing this exercise will help build a “muscle memory” of what it’s like to interrupt, and that muscle memory will serve for a lifetime.

Another challenge for many is waiting for a pause in the speaker’s words in order to make the interruption. I’ve spent way too many painful minutes—cumulatively hours—waiting for that pause where I could interrupt, or share what was going on for me. In so many cases, though, when an interruption is desperately needed, those are exactly the situations where a natural pause is not going to happen. So, be aware of when you’re waiting for a pause (that’s not going to come), and practice interrupting mid-sentence.

As you build the muscle, it will become more natural, and my prediction is that over time, you’ll be overjoyed—either by conversations which become stimulating, safe, and mutual, or by conversations that end.

Lastly, I recommend celebrating and tracking any successes you have in the skillful use of interruption, and note especially the cases where it results in increased ease, connection, mutuality, and enjoyment. It’s not always easy, but the rewards are immense. Give it a try.

NB: I am deeply indebted to the work of Marshall Rosenberg and his book on Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and my teachers of NVC, Jean Morrison, Kristin Masters, and Christine King.


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