March 1, 2017

Can't get a word out? Here's how to handle interrupting colleagues, according to an expert.

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on April 9, 2020.

It's not pleasant when someone interrupts you—and in a work setting, interruptions can harm collaboration. But there are simple strategies to help tame the interrupter in your life, Francesca Gino writes in Harvard Business Review.

Culture, status could factor into why people interrupt

Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that there are several reasons why some people are chronic interrupters. For instance, some research suggests that culture plays a role in interruptions.

In one study, Gino writes, "Japanese participants (whose culture is collectivistic) tended to switch their usual cooperative interruption style (e.g., interruptions asking for clarifications) to the more intrusive North American style when they were engaged in conversations in English with Americans." The study also found the overall number of interruptions was higher when Japanese participants were speaking in English with Americans than it was between two Japanese individuals speaking Japanese.

Status also plays a role. According to Gino, "people tend to dominate conversations and interrupt when they feel more powerful than others in the room or when they want to signal power to others." For instance, in Gino's research, making people feel more powerful made them value their own opinion more than that of an expert and spurred them to interrupt others more frequently.

These dynamics can be harmful because they push people to listen very little and reduce team performance, Gino writes. But she recommends three key strategies to keep the conversation flowing.

Three helpful strategies

1. Get ahead of the interrupter: Instead of pushing back against interruptions as they occur, try managing expectations before you begin speaking by outlining what you plan to talk about and when it is okay to break in, Gino writes.  She explains, "This type of preview may stop the interrupter before he or she starts."

2. Speak with them privately: You should give interrupters the "benefit of the doubt," Gino writes, because they may not know they tend to interrupt. But share with them what you have observed about their interruptions and how they affect you. "This straight talk, when framed constructively, is more likely to produce a behavioral change," Gino writes.

3. Engage the group: According to Gino, this tactic is a less direct approach that involves asking the group about its communication practices and ways it can improve. "This strategy would allow every member, including you, to raise their awareness of challenges facing the group, a first important step in addressing problems like [interruptions]," Gino writes (Gino, Harvard Business Review, 2/22).

The science—and strategy—behind having a 'great meeting'

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