Woman making a "be quiet" gesture

Many of our childhood messages stick with us into adulthood.  Remember the one about “never interrupt others“?  You may even feel programmed to think that interrupting is nothing short of rude and something to be avoided at all costs.  The question is…Is this true?

In a word, my response is “No.” Interrupting is a communication behavior that is clearly warranted in certain circumstances.  In fact, as part of coaching my clients to sound their best in business, this very topic has come up on numerous occasions.  Let me offer some examples…

Recently, I was assisting a client in preparing to moderate a panel discussion. Given that this is a leadership role, it’s the moderator’s responsibility to ensure the audience’s needs are met.  In order to do this, the moderator must let the panelists know when they’ve digressed, not answered a question or are verbose.  The only way to accomplish this is to interrupt them, as warranted.  My recommendation is to let the panelists know in advance that this may occur so they’re not shocked.  Then address the panelist by name (to get his or her attention first) and say something like: In the interest of time, please summarize your point, or That’s good information; let’s hear what your colleagues think or Let me jump in here and clarify what you’ve said so far.  

Additionally, Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, has written on this subject.  In 2005, he wrote that interrupting isn’t necessarily rude if done for the following reasons:

1. If you’re introduced to a person and don’t fully hear the individual’s name.

2. If you don’t understand a word/term/phrase that someone has used.

3. If you’re having difficulty following a person’s point because he’s long winded.

4. If you’re too distracted to listen at the moment and want to suggest speaking at another time.

5. If what you’re hearing is confidential but being said within earshot of others.

I’d also like to add two other reasons to interrupt:

1. If a person is speaking too rapidly for you to follow along.

2. If a person is speaking too softly for you to comprehend.

From this list, we can see that interrupting is appropriate in some circumstances, contrary to what we may have learned as a child. If you opt to interrupt and feel it’s warranted, I encourage you to do so in a gentle and professional manner to ensure you don’t come across as brusque.

Please let me know your thoughts on this subject; your comments are always welcome.



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