Help me finish this sentence. Please.
September 25, 2009 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me learn how to finish a sentence?

OK, I'm a little embarrassed to be asking this question. I'm a generally assertive, confident person. I'm an effective manager in my workplace, not at all timid in my private life, and mostly at ease with where I'm headed personal-growth-wise. It's taken me a long time to get to this point. 19 post-adolescent years of overcoming self-doubt, lack of confidence, and so on.

But there's one monkey I can't seem to get off my back. In both social and professional situations, people interrupt me All The Fucking Time. And I want to know how to stop that from happening so often.

I've tried talking louder; talking faster; and starting sentences with "look," "you know what you should do," or "here's the thing." It doesn't work.

I just seem to be an interruptible person. I hate that. O uninterruptible people, what are your secrets?
posted by YamwotIam to Human Relations (32 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Say "let me finish". If you're feeling really bold, say "Can I finish!?" with a Ross Perot accent.
posted by fritley at 4:55 PM on September 25, 2009

I have people do this to me, and it's extremely annoying. Not to mention rude. I just wait until they shut up, and then go back to the start of the original sentence, and repeat it. No matter what they said, or how much they anticipated my comment and responded to it.

If they do it a lot, I make a point of saying "Could I finish what I was saying, please?". I fix them with a Death Stare for added effect.
posted by Solomon at 4:57 PM on September 25, 2009

I've tried talking louder; talking faster; and starting sentences with "look," "you know what you should do," or "here's the thing." It doesn't work.

None of those things will stop an interrupter, and saying "you know what you should do" is very off-putting so it's probably not gaining you any attentive listeners.

Sometimes, the best strategy for dealing with an interrupter is just to matter-of-factly say, "Wait, let me finish."

That said, are you someone who pauses a lot when speaking? Or inserts a lot of "um"s and "er"s as place-holders while you're thinking of what to say next? If so, that could be encouraging interruptions. Some people who aren't good listeners will take any kind of pause as an invitation to jump in.
posted by amyms at 5:00 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stare at them quietly while they're saying their part. Then wait a beat and say "and we're back" and pick back up where you were. Passive aggressive for the win.
posted by disillusioned at 5:05 PM on September 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine will just continue to talk over the interruption - this can be hard, since (most of us) are socialized to shut up and let the other person talk, which is how you can just get talked over all the time ..
but if she's interrupted, she just continues talking, which usually (but not always, to some intense hilarity) will get the interrupter to stop after a second.
takes some practice, and is difficult to train yourself to do (having done this). doesn't always work, but a suggestion.

what about your tone, when you talk? do you kinda peter out as you talk, or does the pitch of your voice fall quickly (some of those subtle indications that you're at the end of your sentence)?

I nth the "speak up" - e.g., "Let me finish" or "hold on" or "wait" -- I will, unfortunately, get really excited and totally talk over someone or interrupt them, and a cue like that can be real helpful for me. for chronic interrupters who don't respect your conversational space .. well .. are these people you have to talk to, say, for your job?
posted by circle_b at 5:12 PM on September 25, 2009

Don't ramble. Don't go on and on. Get to the point. Fast. Guys interrupts, say:
Excuse me but I am still talking so please wait up. If he doesn't? walk away.
posted by Postroad at 5:16 PM on September 25, 2009

I've found myself saying without my own volition, in a very angry voice, "May I finish?"
I've found interrupters are generally douchey. You just have to scare them a bit.
posted by medea42 at 5:37 PM on September 25, 2009

Damn. This is a hard question.

I have a very good friend who is both a writer and colleague. He delights in communicating concisely in as few words as possible.

Over the years, I've made meetings and emails with him into a game -- how brief and accurate can I be??

The problem is that some of our clients don't share his love of brevity! Sometimes, I'm a bit of an apologist on his behalf. I also wonder if his communication style might alter significantly with me out of the picture. We're actually embarking on that experiment just lately. Go ahead and MeMail in a few months if you are curious about the outcome.

My point is this: Improvement in communication is a lifelong endeavor.

My colleague's preferences have absolutely helped hone my communication style. Perhaps this interruption issue might serve to hone yours?

Practice communicating more succinctly. Practice listening, too. Sometimes people interrupt because they "get" what you are saying -- they've understood (already!) and they have something important to add to the conversation!

For certain, practice the aforementioned death-stare. If you know someone could not possibly understand where you are heading with an idea, make sure you get to the end of your thought.

Do consider someone may have gotten the "gist" of your thought half-way thru. By a certain age, folks have an awful lot of experience to draw upon. It's not that hard to figure they want to ride the "wave of conversation" along with you before the "wave of idea" itself has played out.

posted by jbenben at 5:46 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Everyone is assuming that you're surrounded by rude jackasses, but in your question you say that all different people do this all the time. So maybe you're asking for it somehow.

Do you pause for a long time mid-sentence? Do you talk with a rising inflection that makes the other person think you're asking for approval? Do you look at the person halfway through your own statements?

If so, you might be sending out cues that you're finished, when you're really not, and these people aren't being rude, they're just confused.

This is really hard to self-diagnose. You may need to survey some real-world friends.
posted by rokusan at 5:56 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think I have a trick that can help you out.

The trick is ... say the interrupter's name, repeatedly.

YAMWOTIAM: When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people...

LUCY LOUDMOUTH [Interrupting]: You know, the thing about human events is, one time me and my friend, we tied onions around our belts -- 'cause that was the style at the time -- and...

YAMWOTITAM [loudly and firmly, talking over Lucy]: Lucy... Lucy... Lucy...


YAMWOTIAM: Let me finish. ... for one people to dissolve the political bands (etc)

Works like a charm for me. They're interrupting you because they're tuning you out. Nothing gets a person's attention like someone saying their name.

- AJ

PS If they do give you a hard time about this -- which they probably won't -- you just calmly say "I don't interrupt you; you don't interrupt me." And continue.
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:02 PM on September 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've tried talking louder; talking faster; and starting sentences with "look," "you know what you should do," or "here's the thing."

Are you using these kinds of qualifiers before people start interrupting you? Perhaps you take much longer to get to the point than you realize and people are jumping the gun. Doesn't make it right but it's something you can control to some extent.

Everyone knows someone who will interrupt pretty much anyone, because they're just rude and an interrupter. But if it's constantly happening to you and it's a lot of different people who are doing it, you're the only constant in that equation, so you should take a different look at how you're talking. Using qualifiers like you describe above is one way to "demean" your words and give people the impression that you are interruptable. Being forceful and saying "Let me finish!" without qualifiers will probably have a better effect.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:21 PM on September 25, 2009

Any overeducated English major can tell you the story that the Reverend Sydney Smith, faced with being talked over again by the notably garrulous Thomas Babington Macaulay, once remarked, "You know, when I am gone, you will be sorry you never heard me speak."

I have employed that once or twice and it worked.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:32 PM on September 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

One option that shouldn't be disregarded: learn to talk faster.

We can complain endlessly about how rude it is to interrupt, but this is a lightning-paced society where people are all hopped up on coffee (200 years from now this will remembered as a bizarre period of pandemic caffeine addiction) and media saturation and people are unable - not just unwilling - to bear non-compressed data flow.

If you tell people to wait, they'll just stress out trying not to interrupt. They're not jerks, they're just addled. Most people are, alas.

You shouldn't have to speak faster. You shouldn't have to compress. But if you hate interruption, it's the only way. And it's not actually so bad a mental exercise to work on glibbing up just a bit.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can couple "wait, let me finish" with the "stop" hand gesture.
posted by salvia at 7:01 PM on September 25, 2009

Alaska Jack has it. And if you don't know the interrupter's name, try saying,

posted by roger ackroyd at 7:45 PM on September 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

Do you pause for a long time mid-sentence? Do you talk with a rising inflection that makes the other person think you're asking for approval? Do you look at the person halfway through your own statements?

If so, you might be sending out cues that you're finished, when you're really not, and these people aren't being rude, they're just confused.

This is really hard to self-diagnose. You may need to survey some real-world friends.


I have a long time friend who complains all the time about how frequently she's interrupted. And she's right. However, it also takes her forever to get through a story. To boot, she's also incredibly bad at judging both the interest of others in lengthy personal anecdotes and the appropriateness of these anecdotes for a given social situation. And, because this happens frequently enough, she's also become hyper aware of it--she often makes some of the comments that people have already suggested here and, quite frankly, she comes across as both boorish and rude when she does so. If you make passive aggressive remarks of the "and we're back" sort, people will just think you're a bad listener, and thus push even more to interrupt you, in the hopes that they'll be heard.

I'm not saying that this is necessarily your problem, but I'd try to pay attention to the stories or advice that you, yourself, are trying to impart. Are they right for the given setting? Are they relevant? Do the facial expressions of those around you imply that they're receptive to what you're going to say? Are you coming across as someone who is listening as much as you're talking? Do you seem interested in what they have to say, too?

One way that I've noticed my friend, and others, cope with this is to just ignore what the other person is saying and to pick up their story when they've left off, often long after it's really relevant. While this might be necessary in certain work situations (particularly management situations), it seems to work poorly in social venues. It ends up just imparting, again, that the speaker is unable to gauge the interests of others, the tenor of the general conversation, and is most interested in hearing themselves, particularly because it often leads to interrupting someone else to conclude whatever you're saying. The trick here is really to be flexible, to go with the flow of the conversation, and to make it clear, through body language and actions, that you're as willing to hear others as you want to be heard. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it goes a long way.

Also, try to pay attention to how often this happens to others, because it really, really happens to everyone. Pay attention at parties, particularly. You'll notice that many people either just shrug it off when this happens, or direct whatever it is that they're saying to those in the group who clearly are listening. That's a much, much more graceful way of dealing with this problem than making any sort of snarky, uncomfortable comment.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:15 PM on September 25, 2009 [6 favorites]

I am terrible about interrupting people. It's a bad habit that I try to be aware of, but it still happens. Contrary to what most people seem to think, I find that I interrupt others far more when I *am* paying attention, as opposed to when i'm not really listening. Interrupting is a sign that I'm engaged in the discussion. I find that I only really do it when I'm trying to argue a point. I also have ADD, which I'm sure contributes quite a bit.

I heard someone say recently that there are two types of people -- some folks are over-talkers, and others want to finish their sentence before they pass you the conversation baton. It can be difficult to have a conversation with people who aren't the same type as you -- over-talkers think full-sentencers stifle the pace of the conversation, and full-sentencers think over-talkers are rude and self-absorbed.

I'm pretty aware of my habit, so if someone just gives me a look when I've interrupted them, I am sufficiently shamed and I make a real effort not to do it again. I have a co-worker who's particularly good at scolding me; when I interrupt her and she wants me to stop talking, she completely freezes and holds her breath and stares at me with her mouth still open, as if by interrupting her I hit pause on her or something, and she holds that position while I'm talking which makes me uncomfortable and I shut up.

What I wish I could tell people like her (and you), however, is that it's not that I'm not listening to you -- I jump in because a thought comes to me that I want to express, but it's really difficult for me to hold a thought in my head AND be able to really listen to what the other person is saying. By the time they're done, I'm processing some other thing they said and I can't remember what I originally wanted to say, so waiting my turn puts me at a huge disadvantage in an argument. So I feel like I have to say the thing I'm thinking ASAP, just to get it out of my head so I can concentrate on the discussion.

Then again, some people really are just rude and interrupt you with non-sequiturs that show they're clearly not hearing a word you're saying. I find that to be pretty rare, though.
posted by roscopcoletrane at 8:19 PM on September 25, 2009

"Contrary to what most people seem to think, I find that I interrupt others far more when I *am* paying attention, as opposed to when i'm not really listening. Interrupting is a sign that I'm engaged in the discussion"

That's a really good point. No conversation consists of dry consecutive monologues. We interrupt each other to exclaim ("No!" "You're kidding!" "That's too funny!"), to clarify ("You mean he just got in your car and drove away?"), or simply offer our sonic collaboration ("Uh, huh!" "Right..."), laughter, gasps, etc. We offer jokey little asides and commentaries. Conversations are (outside prim tearooms or audiences with the Queen) pretty collaborative enterprises.

So it's interesting that some people deem certain types of interjection rude. For myself, if I get stuck on a word, I'm glad if someone chimes in with it. If I weren't ordinarily very articulate, I might feel aggrieved at such moments; it might be a sensitive issue for me. But since it isn't, I accept such contributions as part of the interpersonal dynamic of real world conversation (unless someone does it obnoxiously and constantly).

There's an interesting psychic dimension to this....
posted by jimmyjimjim at 9:54 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Second the 'stop' hand gesture. Start slow and low and look at your own hand - it should be self-evident as to what your meaning is. You might want to back up in your thought a second or two and then continue with what you're saying as they pause to look at your hand. Can't hurt to stammer a smidge at that point also, as an attention getter.

It might be a good idea to read up on the art of conversation, check into what's available at your local learning annex, or find a mentor who speaks well and work on the whole give and take with her or him.
posted by valentinepig at 10:00 PM on September 25, 2009

I like to think I'm generally polite, but I have recently found myself interrupting a friend of mine quite a bit, due to the fact he tells stories in the most minute excrutiating detail, gets sidetracked "hmmm was it on John St or on Smith St ... ", and as mentioned above, doesn't judge how interested people are in what he says.

I apologised to him a few days ago as I felt really bad about it, and felt like I was dismissing what he had to say (which, in a way, I was). He said to me that it happens to him all the time, he knows what the problem is but just doesn't know how to change the way he communicates, he's a detail oriented person.

We are both aware of it and I think we are meeting half way now :) I've learnt to be patient and appreciate some of the details, he is starting to learn brevity and Getting To The Damn Point (tm).

This may not apply to you, OP ... if not, people are being rude and I know I like to be gently informed when I'm being rude.
posted by Admira at 10:09 PM on September 25, 2009

The real question isn't "How do I get people to stop interrupting me?"
The real question IS: "Why do people interrupt me?"

You say this happens "All The Fucking Time." I'm not trying to be mean, but, I think a statement like that tells us the problem is you. I say this because people rarely interrupt me, and I'm not a guy with a huge personality. I don't have a booming voice and I don't use any tricks to get people to let me finish speaking.

"I've tried talking louder; talking faster; and starting sentences with "look," "you know what you should do," or "here's the thing." It doesn't work."

You're right. That stuff doesn't work because it doesn't get to the root of the problem.
Why are people interrupting YOU?

- Do you surround yourself with assholes? Some people do, and then they wonder why their friends suck! I'm not saying you do this. I'm just pointing it out as a possibility.

- Are your communication skills are lacking? This is a harder one to address because communication is complex.

Some people are boring. Others have nothing to say but love to be heard. Some need to be part of a conversation even though they have nothing to add. And then there are people who State The Motherfrigging Obvious As If It's A New Thought! Oh, god. I know a guy who does this and it's downright painful to have a conversation with him. It's so painful, in fact, that I learned to avoid him.

Figure out why people are interrupting YOU (specifically you). It'll be a challenge because you can't just ask people. They'll lie, or go easy on you in order to be nice. Ah, but once you figure out what your bad habit is, you'll find that people will become more interested in what you have to say.

Look into Toastmasters. Even the best communicators can improve.

Best of luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 10:14 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also wonder where you live. People say interrupting is rude, but in some places, interrupting is a normal part of the general conversational style. I became aware of this when I moved to the southeast US, where people consider interrupting rude, from the northeast, where, in some pockets, interrupting is how you carry the conversation forward.

Do you know of the researcher/writer/academic Deborah Tannen? She writes extensively on interrupting (conversational "overlap").

Anyway, if you really want to look into the sociology of all this, Deboran Tannen is a great start. That link above might be a helpful two page read.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:29 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Speaking in the form of "Topic sentence --> elaboration" rather than "Lead up to the point --> the point" has helped me. Also, people who interrupt consistently are rude. It's not your job to make up for their rudeness; however, you can provide cues that will help them communicate better. Posture is one.

I have a friend who will interrupt just because what you're saying isn't as interesting as what she has to say. I think her interruptions actually are interesting, so I make sure that what I want to say comes out in the first sentence or two. Then we're both happy.

When other people interrupted me, it was because I paused in the middle of sentences in a way that makes them wonder if I was done speaking, and they got confused. Communication was awkward with people who didn't take the time to understand how I spoke. I also had a quiet voice, something that I realized when people would repeat what I said as though they hadn't heard it -- which they hadn't. So that might be a problem.

I think PhoBWanKenobi and I must also have a friend in common. It's really hard not to interrupt my friend because she is so self-conscious about the fact that people are struggling to track what she says, and so she gets bogged down in, "I know I'm rambling, but..." and, "Oh just one more thing..." Another vote for knowing your audience and knowing when to stop.
posted by ramenopres at 11:29 PM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Where are you from originally and where do you live now?
posted by Jacqueline at 12:52 AM on September 26, 2009

Response by poster: Where are you from originally and where do you live now?

I was born & raised in eastern Canada; living in Montreal now.

Thank you, all of you, for your thoughtful answers. This has helped a lot, I think.
posted by YamwotIam at 5:02 AM on September 26, 2009

O uninterruptible people, what are your secrets?

I find that people almost never interrupt me when they're the ones that have asked something of/from/about myself. In return, I try to get right to the point and try to be careful about offering unsolicited suggestions/advice/observations.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:45 AM on September 26, 2009

In my last job, we went through one of those team communication training exercises and one of the things we learned about was a theory about how people perceive that the other person in a conversation has finished speaking. I wish I remembered the name of the theory so I could direct you to more information about it, but the basic gist of it was this:

Some people have extremely short triggers for believing that other people have finished or bogged down in their thought and that it's okay for someone else to begin speaking. Other people have much longer triggers for the same thing. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Regardless of how long your personal trigger happens to be, it's not something that really changes readily.

But the long trigger people tend also to be both slow talkers and more likely to speak in complex sentences that contain subclauses and pauses and such. Which means that if they're conversing with short trigger people, the short trigger people are presented with several moments throughout the course of a single sentence that seem to them like the person has actually finished speaking and it's time for someone else to break in, even if the actual content of the sentence thus far doesn't necessarily indicate that. If slow trigger was hoping to get in more than one sentence, it's all the worse.

So, the fast trigger people go around interrupting the slow trigger people without really realizing they're interrupting at all, and the slow trigger people allow awkward pauses in conversation that the fast trigger people feel obligated to fill up with more words, thus the slow trigger people barely get a word in edge-wise in the conversations.

Is it possible that you're both a very slow speaker and a very slow trigger person, and thus people are interrupting you because they assume you're, you know, done?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:06 AM on September 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

I just stop talking and say, quietly, "Excuse me". It almost always gets the point across.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 8:08 AM on September 26, 2009

"I just stop talking and say, quietly, "Excuse me". It almost always gets the point across."


Over-interruption is obnoxious. But over-insistence that no one say a word while you speak (plus passive-aggressive remonstration to offenders) is equally so.

We should all probably interrupt less. And we should also all tolerate crosstalk more. Because conversation is - and ought to be - somewhat collaborative. Again: within reason.

I think I'd go out of my mind if I frequently found myself in social situations where each person recites his/her spiel in dryly hermetic consecutive segments, like a sharing session in some sort of support group. But, hey, some people insist on that, though it strikes me as betraying a fragile peevishness. Hey, different strokes!
posted by jimmyjimjim at 11:47 AM on September 26, 2009

Response by poster: Is it possible that you're both a very slow speaker and a very slow trigger person, and thus people are interrupting you because they assume you're, you know, done?

Oh, entirely. And I'm probably a slower speaker than I think, on account of having this very slow trigger.
posted by YamwotIam at 6:12 AM on September 27, 2009

I'd suspect that if you've previously had issues with self-confidence, you might not be great at making and holding eye contact.

In a gaming group I'm in, we're constantly talking over one another. One friend is particularly vulnerable to it, but I've found that when he's looking at me, rather than looking at the Storyteller, I'm much less likely to interrupt him.

Holding eye contact not only will make people less likely to interrupt you, it will make it easier for you to see cues of them zoning out, and for them to pick up on changes in the intensity of your expression (eyes widening / narrowing) that make you a more animated (and easy to listen to) speaker.

Best of luck with it!
posted by ElfWord at 10:22 AM on September 28, 2009

You are probably using body-language that signals you are lower in status than the person who is interrupting you. The book you need to read is Impro by Keith Johnstone. It is not a self-help book, it is about improvisational drama. You need to read it.
posted by Hogshead at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2009

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