By Lucia Brizzi, Next Level Leadership, Inc.
Managing interruptions can be one of the most difficult challenges of the workday. How can we empower ourselves to manage interruptions skillfully for the good of our teams, our work, and our leadership evolution? Here are some simple tools:
- When presenting, set clear boundaries before you begin. Let people know how long you will be presenting and when you’ll be taking questions. If you don’t want questions until the end of your talk, explain why. Is it because you want to explain something before opening it to the floor? Is it because you are managing a time constraint? By setting clear boundaries, you give people the opportunity to give you the space you need.
- Uses S.S.V. (Succinct, Specific, Value Added) language. Wandering to get to your point can confuse listeners and lead to incidental interruption.
- Make yourself easy to follow by putting a period on your statement, then leaving open space for response.
Interruptions happen when two people are speaking and one person stops. Whether you decide to stop speaking or continue talking through the interruption is up to you. If you’re in a culture where people interrupt you may want to allow the occasional interruption depending on the situation. Chronic interruptions will warrant holding your ground for the sake of the work and relationship norms.
Whichever option you choose, assume a positive intention. By navigating interruptions with ease and positivity, you can maintain productivity, engagement, and focus for the good of the group. Of course, there are some cases where a more direct conversation with the chronic interrupter may become necessary.
- Option 1: Stop the interruption.
Make eye contact with the interrupter as you keep talking with a slightly raised voice. You can combine this with putting your hand out towards the speaker to indicate you are not finished, or calling the speaker by name to get his or her attention, and saying briefly something like, “just a minute” or “just finishing my thought.”
- Option 2: Let the person interrupt you.
Welcome his or her point. Then find an opening and continue your talk. Always thank the speaker as you take back the floor.
At times, we can be so intent on our plan for a meeting or presentation that we are not open to allowing in new ideas or insights. By bringing an open mind, we can better discern in the moment if the interruption is detracting or adding to the work.
We count on leaders to set and sustain a productive tone rather than letting their inner states be at the whim of others. Here are some tools to maintain serenity, confidence, and focus while navigating challenges:
- Breathe: Often our first impulse when challenged is to hold our breath. This signals our body’s fight or flight response, and can spiral us into panic mode, where cognitive skills decrease, stress hormones increase, and our work suffers. By inhaling as we receive the information, we put our body in a receptive mode. This allows us to maintain focus, as well as receive all the relevant information in this specific moment. No two interruptions are the same. Is the interrupter oblivious, confused, angry, or competitive? Is the team uncomfortable, distracted, or curious? The vast information we receive on a sub and semi-conscious level by staying open through the interruption informs our response.
- Aim to take nothing personally: Interruption can trigger negative feelings, particularly if we have a history of feeling overlooked or undervalued. Remind yourself that however it may feel in the moment, interruptions are rarely personal. People’s conversation patterns are often deep, unconscious habits they have yet to examine. They take time and awareness to shift. By remaining resourced and communicating with clarity, you can help shift the dynamic to a more positive one.
When An Interruption is Distracting From the Topic
Briefly acknowledge the person/point. Then politely offer to take this up in the Q&A. If you haven’t set this up formally at the beginning of the meeting, it’s likely that the group will welcome this intervention.
If the speaker is interrupting with a complex question or point, you can cut in and request that you speak in depth about this with him or her one on one.
In cases where the interrupter is disruptive, take it offline.
- Speak to the person privately requesting the change you would like to see.
- For teams, start the next meeting with norms. Make a general invitation to members to suggest norms for effective meetings. If it’s bothering you, it’s likely to be bothering the group.