When & How to Interrupt
In general… don’t interrupt. In one-on-one conversations and group settings, listen attentively and take turns talking. Don’t monopolize conversations, speak over others, or impatiently finish their sentences.
Sometimes, though, you do need to interrupt—the key word being “need.” Interrupting is appropriate and even helpful in certain circumstances, especially when done respectfully. For example, please do interrupt in these cases:
To Correct an Error. Don’t go around correcting everyone on every little thing. That’s super annoying! (At least, that’s what friends tell me when I correct their grammar, ha.) When a mistake or misunderstanding can lead to huge problems down the road, you owe it to others to interrupt and alert them.
To Request Clarity. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, interrupt and ask a question. Don’t just smile and nod. In a group setting, if you need clarification, chances are others do, too.
To Refocus. If you’re leading a presentation or meeting, it’s your responsibility to keep track of time and content. When the discussion gets off in the weeds or you’re running out of time, stop the conversation and lead the group forward. Another time to refocus is when you’ve been rudely interrupted. You have the right to say, “Hold on a minute; I wasn’t quite finished.”
To Include Others. If a member of the group is being excluded, you can interrupt the conversation to give them the floor (if they would appreciate it and not feel put on the spot). Don’t speak for them; speak for yourself: “I’m curious what Sinead’s opinion is on this.” Particularly when you are a group’s moderator, it’s your duty to interrupt monopolizers and make sure everyone is heard. You don’t need an official role, however.
To Stop Inappropriate Comments. You do not have to listen to gossip, hurtful teasing, or rudeness. You also may need to stop someone from revealing confidential information. You may interrupt any time you feel uncomfortable. Depending on the situation and your comfort level, you can choose to simply change the subject or address the comment directly. If the inappropriate comments don’t end, leave the conversation, and, if necessary, escalate.
In an Emergency. By all means, interrupt when someone is in danger! (Hopefully, obvious.)
Don’t speak over others routinely, but do be willing to stand up for yourself and others. Of course, how you interrupt matters. If you’re too nice or quiet or apologetic, your interruption may not even be acknowledged. If you’re too aggressive, you may offend people and then this weird thing happens where their ears turn off and nothing you say can be heard.
Here are some tips on how to interrupt, all of which work in person, over the phone, and on video conferences:
Wait for a natural lull. Whether you’re dealing with one person or a group, the volume of their speaking naturally rises and falls. Yes, I know there are some people who seem to be able to talk and talk on and on and on without ever even taking a breath or pausing for a second and these people can be exhausting to listen to and difficult to interrupt rather like this sentence. Most of the time, you can time your interruption with a dip.
Catch their attention. Say one word loudly enough to stop the speaker, pause momentarily so they can refocus their attention, then drop the volume of your voice to draw them in. You can read about this skill in greater detail here. It works for groups and individuals—just be sure your volume levels correlate to the situation. Don’t yell to get the attention of a single person who is standing right next to you!
Gesture. When you say your single word to get attention, use your hand as well. As with your volume, calibrate the size of your gesture for the group: For a single person, you may slightly raise one finger (not the middle one, ha!); for a large audience, you may need to hold both hands in the air. During the pause, freeze your hand to hold attention. Drop your gesture when you drop your voice.
Acknowledge the interruption. This isn’t always necessary, but it can be a good way to make your intentions clear—you are interrupting because you need to, not because you’re self-centered, rude, or thoughtless. A simple transition phrase works. Here are some examples:
- “I need to interrupt you…”
- “Excuse me just a moment…”
- “Let me add something here…”
- “Can I clarify…?”
- “Wait. Thanks for letting me interrupt…”
Use a pleasant, yet firm voice. Speak with the Authoritative voice pattern that curls down at the end of statements. Be sure to breathe, so that your voice sounds definitive without being edgy. A gentle smile, if appropriate, can help keep your tone pleasant, too.
Focus on the issue. Make your interruption about what was said or what needs to be said, not about the people involved.
Hand it off. Once you’ve made your point, don’t hog the conversation. Give it back to the person who was speaking before or move it forward to someone else. You didn’t interrupt to take over, but to contribute.
Interruptions are a natural, and sometimes necessary, part of life. There’s a time for everything: a time to shut up and listen… and a time to speak out! Increase your skill as a speaker—both in front of a group and conversationally—by learning when and how to interrupt confidently and respectfully. Let your voice be heard.