‘Will you shut up, man?’
How to deal with chronic interrupters
Whether you’re making a pitch in person, brainstorming on a Zoom call, or standing behind a podium attempting to explain your economic policies, it can be incredibly frustrating if you’re continually interrupted by others while trying to make a point — for both you and anyone who is watching or participating in the conversation.
While it may be part of the natural rapport among your friends to verbally cut each other off, the more formal the setting, the more jarring the interruption. “Context is being aware of the situation. Are you hanging out with friends or at work? Or, at a town meeting debating an important project,” says Valerie Di Maria, principal at the10company, a PR and communications agency in New York. “Understanding the people involved is also critical. Are they well-meaning but so enthusiastic they can’t help themselves? Or are they so egocentric they force their ideas on everyone?”
We asked a collection of communication experts to weigh in on the best ways to deal with people who constantly interrupt you. You might be surprised at the range of — and often conflicting nature — of their answers. Read what they have to say and find a strategy that works best for you:
“Increase your cadence and stick to your main arguments, keeping your statements as punchy and quotable as possible. Speak in the style of soundbites while avoiding long-winded explanations and ensure that you are projecting your voice. Think 15-second TV rapid-fire response, as opposed to a lengthy academic lecture. Resist your natural desire to answer or address what the person is interjecting; this takes you away from your key points and onto less important tangents. Employ body language to show them you intend to have your say, such as holding up your hand or a single index finger to signal you’re not finished. Perhaps most importantly, maintain composure and don’t lose your temper.”
-Evan Nierman, founder and CEO, Red Banyan, Miami, Florida
“Decide on a method to interject yourself. Methods can vary from subtle to aggressive. A subtle approach is to wait for an opening; when they take a breath or pause, just start talking. More assertive responses are ‘I have a few thoughts on that when you are ready.’ Or ‘I would like to discuss this with you, but it seems like you are not listening to what I have to say.’
Thinking ahead of the situations and mapping out a strategy of how you will react and when will help enormously in dealing with people who interrupt you.”
-Dr. Scott Guerin, adjunct professor in psychology, Kean University, Union, New Jersey
“Be completely silent. Create an uncomfortable silence. That should help the interrupter realize it’s not appropriate. Don’t say a word and have the uncomfortable silence speak. If interruptions continue, I as a moderator or organizer would physically stand between the interrupter and who they are interrupting in complete silence. Just standing in silence can interrupt the chaos. If interrupting continues, it’s a sign of a complete break-down of trust and courtesy, and the person should be dismissed from the session since at that point it just interferes with everyone else’s experience.”
-Carol Martsolf, chief learning officer, Urban Engineers, Philadelphia
“In many cases, it’s not worth trying to speak over or squeeze in a word while the other person takes a breath for air. Rather, when interrupted, it’s completely fine to ask, ‘do you mind letting me finish?’ or ‘I’d love to finish this thought before you chime in.’ Hopefully, the interrupter will catch on without going on the defensive. But, if or when that happens, it’s OK to be a bit more blunt: ‘I let you speak and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me have a turn now.’ Many times, people who are interrupting are having a one-way conversation … which means if you’re trying to get approval or make decisions, it could be hard to achieve. This is when it’s a good idea to follow up with a ‘per our conversation’ type of an email and bullet out the points you attempted to make so there is accountability and clarity which may have gotten lost during the spoken conversation.”
-Catherine Merritt, CEO, Spool Marketing and Communications, Chicago
“Acknowledge the person, recognize their contribution, give them a brief comment or response and be firm about talking with them after the meeting to enable a personalized, one-onone discussion. No matter what, stay calm and don’t show frustration. Deliver your key messages upfront so if you do get derailed, you’ve made your impact right away.”
-Valerie Di Maria, principal, the 10 company, New York
“Ask questions. When you are able to get a word in, use your time wisely to ask meaningful, direct questions. You can try some of the following: Why do you deem it necessary to interrupt me when I’m speaking? What point are you trying to convey that you believe I’m not understanding? Are you willing to understand my perspective by actively listening?
Questions like this will create awareness around the behavior you are trying to stop.”
-Monte Williams, Founder/CEO, ALEU
“If you feel you can’t get a word in edgewise, say so. ‘I’d like to finish my train of thought. Do you mind waiting before you get started on your thoughts?’”
-Debora Lima, director, The Tag Experience, Miami, Florida
“Interruptions are inevitable. We have diverse personalities around us, deadlines, and competing priorities. The best approach to deal with aggressive personality interruptions is to reframe the communication process. Suggest a communication model that moderates communication overload. Discuss preferred channel such as instant messaging platforms, video chat, email, or phone call. Establish an appropriate response timeframe. The culture needs to be open for a communication plan to change an undesired dynamic.”
-Angela Corbo, Ph.D., chair of Communications Studies, Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania
Every office has a chronic interrupter, but there are ways to get a word in.