Why do people keep interrupting me?
November 18, 2009 5:58 AM   Subscribe

People routinely interrupt me when I'm speaking in a group. Why does this happen, and how can I stop it?

Apparently there's something about the way I speak that makes people think it's ok to interrupt me. I watch other people speak in small groups, and they mostly get to get to the end, period, before someone else speaks. They sometimes even pause, for effect, or to recall something, and then continue without interruption. I, on the other hand, seem to be interrupted the moment I stop to draw breath, and I think as a result, have developed this manic fast speaking style that often finds me getting ahead of my train of thought. Have you had this problem, and if so, how did you correct it? Is this a "public speaking" issue? I thought about Toastmasters, but this isn't really a podium problem, it's more a meeting problem.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible that you ramble?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:06 AM on November 18, 2009 [11 favorites]

Do the exact same thing to the person who interrupted you.

When they pause to take a breath or recall something, find a related thread of conversation and bring it back around to what you were saying. It's a subtle clue as to: hey, dude. Don't interrupt me.

Without actually telling them that.

If you keep letting people take your spotlight, they're going to think it's okay to keep doing it.
posted by royalsong at 6:08 AM on November 18, 2009

If people aren't listening, it generally means that you don't have enough power in the group. (Or that what you say isn't interesting, but I'll assume that you're a fountain of wisdom and insight). If you're young and/or female, I'm sorry to say that the only thing that helps is to grow older and gain more status and power.

Apart from the power issue, you can start by speaking in as low a voice as you can believably speak in. Don't rush, speak slower than you normally would. Always be sure to make a clear point, instead of thinking out loud.

Being assertive helps too. "I wasn't finished", "If you would let me finish...", "One more thing...". Don't automatically stop talking once anyone interrupts.
posted by NekulturnY at 6:09 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been sitting in a lot of meetings lately, and my thought is that people who are deliberate and speak with authority will be listened to.

This doesn't mean you need to be loud and bombastic, however. My boss is very quiet, but when he speaks everyone shuts up and listens. After watching him for awhile, I've come to the conclusion that he gives off this aura of being totally serene most of the time. Your rushed, hurried speech probably makes you come off as being nervous and agitated, which will make people more likely to interrupt.

Try speaking slower, and give your words a more even pacing. Imagine that you are actually standing behind a podium giving a speech. Avoid using verbal pauses like "um" and "uh". If you need to stop to consider your words, then do it silently. It may be more effective to pause in the middle of a sentence so that there is still the expectation that you're at least going to finish that sentence.

If people continue to interrupt (especially if they're coworkers or friends who may already assume it's ok to interrupt you) then you can also say something like, "Excuse me, I wasn't finished." and continue what you have to say.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:10 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

How you control your voice will also play a factor. If you just use your "head voice," without support from your diaphragm, people will generally think you're weak--regardless of whether they themselves speak with their head voice. I find that speaking from your diaphragm (and possibly louder than you're accustomed to) gets things done.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:11 AM on November 18, 2009

Reasons I will interrupt someone:

1. They are rambling, and interrupting them is the only way to get back on track.
2. They are missing the point, and I interrupt them to clarify or correct their misperception.
3. The point they are making is so obvious that everyone else in the room got there without the need to make it explicit. Allowing the person to finish will just waste time.

...finds me getting ahead of my train of thought...

It sounds like you're doing your thinking out loud, i.e., rather than communicating. That is annoying and invites interruption. Do your thinking before you open your mouth.
posted by logicpunk at 6:12 AM on November 18, 2009 [11 favorites]

These groups - are they friends, work associates, both?
posted by bunny hugger at 6:13 AM on November 18, 2009

I have a friend that I almost involuntarily interrupt all the time. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, and eventually determined that it came down to two things: 1) she does not move her mouth when she talks (I mean, she moves it a little bit, but not so that someone could read her lips) and 2) she talks extremely quietly. For whatever reason these things made her easy to interrupt - I just start talking over her, without even meaning to. So try slowing down, speaking a little bit louder (don't yell), and annunciate.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:15 AM on November 18, 2009

Speak in short, direct sentences. Do not elaborate.
posted by Xoebe at 6:16 AM on November 18, 2009

I have had this happen to me, and I have found a mixture of self-editing (don't ramble and get to the point....not everything we say is that insightful or important) and assertiveness (simply don't let them interrupt you.....call them out if they do) have helped.
posted by PsuDab93 at 6:16 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think your issue is not incorrect speaking style, but rather lack of assertiveness. There's no reason to stop talking as soon as someone tries to interrupt you. Just carry on speaking over their intrusion, and they'll get the hint and wait their turn.

Occasionally you'll meet someone who has no grasp of this basic social cue. In such situations it is not inappropriate to interject with your own "excuse me, let me finish."
posted by BeaverTerror at 6:19 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a chance that you don't get interrupted more than other people, you just stop talking when someone interrupts you. I find it remarkably effective to just keep right on talking when someone interrupts me and I want to finish my point. 100% effective at letting the other person know that you weren't finished.

This is the nuclear bomb of conversational style, though. The person who interrupted is guaranteed to know that you noticed them interrupting and that you didn't like it. 99% of the time it's better just to let rude people (or people who grew up in argumentative, over-talking families and so don't know any better) interrupt and come back to your point later if you feel like it's important.
posted by MarkAnd at 6:21 AM on November 18, 2009

What does your voice sound like?

Let me relate it to guitar tone, which is the closest analogy I can think of: there are some tones that "cut through the mix" and can be clearly heard over all the other instruments without necessarily being louder in volume, but there are some tones that just get lost even if the volume is increased.

I think the same thing is true of speaking voices. The people in a group who are able to command attention will usually have the type of voice that can be clearly heard without being loud. And the people who get interrupted are the people with softer voices. I don't think it's a matter of not being able to hear you, like the guitar analogy, but maybe more of a subconscious thing. People perceive the person with the soft voice as being more passive, and they get superseded by the people with the stronger voices.
posted by relucent at 6:22 AM on November 18, 2009

There are some good points here, already.

In my experience, the people who get interrupted are the people who are unaware that they're talking for too long and not saying much. Had a friend who took half an hour to tell a thirty second story, and you bet he got interrupted.

Don't hem and haw. Reduce filler, know what you want to say before you say it, and speak up.

On the other hand, if that's not the case and you're undeniably fascinating with a booming voice that can fill a room, who are these people interrupting you? Your friends? Do you make them feel like a dick when they do? Because you should.
posted by jeffxl at 6:28 AM on November 18, 2009

Good points above, but not knowing your status in the group you are describing makes everything just a guess. I think you are suggesting that this is a work problem.

If you are a junior employee, your superiors are / and will / possibly should? interrupting you. As a relatively assertive middle manager, I get interrupted by my boss and superiors. I don't get interrupted by my employees very often.

If you are a woman, I bet you get interrupted more. That always happens. You gotta step back in and say "excuse me I am not finished".

But, you might ramble too - this is so irritating; you suggest that you are doing it by getting ahead of your train of thought. I want to throw folks out the window when they do this, and I will interrupt almost anyone (except my bosses' boss who rambles insanely) in my workplace because it is such a waste of time.
posted by RajahKing at 6:37 AM on November 18, 2009

posted by anthropomorphic at 6:43 AM on November 18, 2009

Your post makes the assumption that your getting interrupted is a bad thing. This may not always be the case: for the audience at large interruptions help keep the conversation more productive and interesting. If you happen to have started a topic and somebody interrupts you then this need not be a sleight on your ego: many a powerful leader gets that way by becoming a good listener - even to interruptions. You might even take it as a complement that whatever you have said has excited somebody else to the point where they interrupt you.

Have a listen to some other conversations that you are not taking part in; notice how rare it is for somebody to finish speaking before one of their interlocutors starts talking - even in a non-heated conversation amongst friends.

But as a specific point: make sure you maintain eye contact with your audience when you are speaking. Looking down or away gives people a signal that they can interrupt.
posted by rongorongo at 6:48 AM on November 18, 2009

People have made some excellent points, but I find that sadly, interruption now seems to just part be of the culture; witness all of the responses pointing to what YOU are doing to contribute to the problem, rather than chastising these people for their rudeness and lack of social skills. Yes if you are in a position of power, it may be that more people will think twice before interrupting, but otherwise, it seems like anyone is fair game. I will admit that it is one of my pet peeves, so maybe I have stronger feelings about it than most, but I honestly think that there are few legitimate reasons for interrupting someone mid-sentence.

Now I'm going to reveal myself as oldish by dragging out that dreaded phrase..."when I was young" but when I was kid, you were taught not to interrupt to adults talking for any reason short of an emergency (like you had a limb hanging off level of emergency) and this started quite young; at least by age 5. I rarely see a child told to wait until the adults have finished (I would say never, but I did recently witness one parent teasingly tell his 6 year old son "I don't see any blood so whatever you have to tell me can wait until I've finished this conversation." I found it so pervasive in my last job that I began to wonder it people truly had no idea how rude it was because they hadn't been taught that as children.
posted by kaybdc at 7:00 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Group conversation is an improvisational and anarchic art. You don't have any right not to be interrupted and to say everything you want to say if the group overrules you. You're going to have to fight to get your ideas out there. That may mean being more assertive, or talking louder, or making your thoughts more concise, but in any event, keep in mind that it's not the group's duty to listen to you and let you have your say (unless it's actually group therapy, I guess.) Rather, it's your challenge to make yourself persuasive and listenable.
posted by yarly at 7:01 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

witness all of the responses pointing to what YOU are doing to contribute to the problem, rather than chastising these people for their rudeness and lack of social skills.

Well, actually, all of the responses are pointing to what the poster is doing wrong because the poster is contributing to the problem. Nobody else is being interrupted, only the poster. So clearly something's going on there with the way in which they are conversing. My guess is rambling. If you're going to tell a story about something you saw at the ballgame last night, don't tell me what you ate, who you sat next to, what the weather was like, who sang the seventh inning stretch, what the bathrooms looked like, and everything else that might pop into your head. I use to have people interrupt me when I was younger and it bothered me. I started telling shorter, more simple stories and now people don't interrupt me. When people think you're going to ramble, they'll cut you off even when you may have been planning to just tell a quick little story. Conversely, if you're known for making a point quickly and succinctly, you'll get more leeway when it's time to tell a doozy at some point. Storytelling and good conversation is an art - to boil it down to a matter of "respect" is missing the point.
posted by billysumday at 7:32 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

How well does your voice carry? There are a lot of good points here about assertiveness, eye contact, avoiding speaking until you know what you want to say and avoiding rambling and fillers and whatnot, and the strength of your voice (for lack of a better descriptor) could be a factor too.

Get a trusted friend with normal hearing to stand well away (such as at the opposite end of your/his/her apartment/house/office (indoor space, without significant other noise going on) and walk toward you as you speak in your normal conversational tone. You can read a utility bill or something, but keep talking as s/he moves toward you until s/he can hear you clearly without needing to ask you to clarify or repeat.

S/he shouldn't need to be any closer than 6-8 feet to hear you clearly, without you raising your volume. If s/he has to get closer than that, work on projecting your voice, enunciating, speaking at a measured pace, speaking from your diaphragm, (and increasing your volume only if you speak especially quietly) until your friend can clearly hear and understand you 6-8 feet away.
posted by notashroom at 7:38 AM on November 18, 2009

Have you considered spray bottles of water, or perhaps pennies, as training methods for these clowns?

I have this problem with a group of friends - I don't even pause, and a couple of them start talking over me, sometimes mid-word - and I've tried both of these.

I submit that in a business environment, howling, "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, I WAS TALKING HERE, YOU ASSHAT!" may not quite work.
posted by mephron at 8:01 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that the points raised here are all worth giving serious thought to, but I'll approach this from a different angle, just in case.

Do you find that everybody is liable to interrupt you, even people who don't know you? Or is it certain people who do know you? I have the bad habit of interrupting people I know well to "complete their thought" when they pause (I'm working on it); I wonder if this might be the case with you. If so, talk to them one on one, let them know it bugs you, and ask them to cut it out.
posted by adamrice at 8:06 AM on November 18, 2009

Group conversation is an improvisational and anarchic art. You don't have any right not to be interrupted and to say everything you want to say if the group overrules you. You're going to have to fight to get your ideas out there.

A lot group conversations may be like that but it doesn't have to be that way.

If I remember correctly, the late physicist Feynman described a meeting that Neils Bohr, Oppenheimer and other famous physicists had in one of his books.

There was a complex decision to be made and he was amazed at how each person spoke essentially without interrupting and a consensus was reached.

I'm not saying every conversation is going to be like that and certainly a lot of conversations that I have are not like that.

But the comment in bold above just sounds so primitive compared to what Feynman describes.

It doesn't hurt for us mortals to aim a little higher.
posted by simpleton at 8:25 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

My guess is that the reason is a mix of these, lot's of good suggestions. You may find it helpful to separate the advice into things you have some control of and things you don't. So it may be hard to change the fact that you are young and have less power in the group (if that happens to be the case).

However, your voice itself is probably the one thing you have the most control over. If it's important enough to you you may even want to take a few classes as suggested above, the Alexander Technique is one that performers and public speakers use.
posted by jeremias at 8:25 AM on November 18, 2009

That is, I would tend to agree with kaybdc and say its not really the OP's "fault".

But I also agree there are techniques to make yourself heard in a group of overbearing people.
posted by simpleton at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2009

If you're not rambling, it might be worth thinking about your eyes and body language. People usually make eye contact with someone in the group while they're speaking, and only look down when they've finished. If you're looking downward while talking, people will instinctively take that as a sign you've basically finished and its their turn.

Or, make hand gestures while you speak, drop your hands when you've finished.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:42 AM on November 18, 2009

Maybe you could record yourself when you're in a meeting sometime, just to see how you behave? You can actually defend it professionally, saying you want to improve your communication style, which you do.

That said, I did have a former friend who got off on interrupting me. He thought he was clever. Mostly he was just a jerk. A few times I would actively snap, "May I finish?" and that was usually enough to get across any information that was actually important.
posted by medea42 at 8:52 AM on November 18, 2009

If this is at work, at least entertain the possibility that you may be exceeding your authority by talking so much, that the interruption is a not-so-subtle "Honey, be quiet and let the adults talk." You may have the information, but due to your position, they may not want to hear it from you. It's hard to listen to people speculate and ponder when you have the/an answer, but if there is this power dynamic, you'll just annoy people by telling them, and they won't listen anyway.

That was my experience, and once I finally cottoned on, I stopped talking so much in meetings. Why go to meetings just to sit there? Well, so you can write down the bits that touch on your work, decide what you think, maybe do a little research, and have an answer ready when the various people at the meeting either severally stop by your desk or ask your boss to ask you.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:57 AM on November 18, 2009

I agree with what most of the people here have said, that rambling and unfocused speaking are often interrupted or brushed aside. The faster mode of talking you've picked up probably exacerbates the problem too. If you've developed a reputation for speaking this way, people will continue to interrupt you out of instinct, even if you change your habits. It may take time to retrain those people to listen to you again.

Another possibility, if the conversations you're having trouble with are in business meetings, is your role (or perceived role) in the organization. I've been on committees that included employees ranging from the receptionist to the CEO. While everyone was encouraged to participate in meeting discussion, obviously the executives' words carried the most weight. The receptionist often had good ideas, but they were unfairly glossed over because of her age/inexperience/rank in the company. Sadly, there's not much one can do about that except for get promoted and/or earn a reputation for being an "idea person."

Personally, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of playing devil's advocate, respectfully pointing out possible flaws in supervisors' ideas to show that I'm a critical thinker and not just sucking up. Depending on the personalities involved, your mileage may vary with such an approach.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:13 AM on November 18, 2009

agree with simpleton. No offense yarly but the conversation style that you describe is my version of hell and should be the exception (i.e. people debating a hot button issue) rather than the rule. I do enjoy a good debate and also accept that our ideas of what makes a good conversation can differ.

I will concede that people who can't get to the bloody point can be annoying. I also cansee that there is more to this question than respect and that my own strong feelings on this topic colored my answer, However wouldn't it be better to deal with the issue directly rather than just run roughshod over the guilty parties in a conversation? I had a colleague with whom I was friends, who had a tendency to ramble. If I was too busy to listen to him, before he launched into whatever he was going to tell me, I'd gently teasing him that I needed the concise version and not the normal version. At least it clued him into the fact that his inability to get the point was an issue. If the OP is a rambler and that's why their constantly getting interrupted, well s/he's isn't getting the message, but rather has been left hurt and confused.

OP, do you have a good friend who you trust to be brutally honest? Could you ask them basically what you've asked here?

posted by kaybdc at 9:37 AM on November 18, 2009

Some people just need to feel that they're powerful at the expense of someone else - and by interrupting or censoring what you were saying is just an indicator of this. A few options, let it slide, get upset, stand your ground (if you feel it's worth the effort) or use a warrior like tactic and outsmart them at their own game. The Art of War is very good to learn various ways of attacking, retreating, camouflage and using the element of surprise to your advantage. In the final analysis, what goes around does come around - one day they're interrupting you, the next day they find they have a problem communicating altogether. It's one of those universal mysteries.
posted by watercarrier at 9:41 AM on November 18, 2009

Everyone so far has been going on the assumption that you ramble. I'll assume the opposite, since I've known some people who speak nervously quick, and "manic"-like, but who are actually pretty quiet people. I get interrupted a lot too, and I never, ever ramble. I'm not even capable of rambling. But I'm quite sure that I get interrupted because I talk in a way that perpetually looks like I'm almost done talking. I think it's due mostly to poor eye contact -- not looking assertively at the people I'm speaking to, and instead looking down and around -- and also to letting my voice trail off. Maybe that helps ya. Good luck.
posted by frankly mister at 10:40 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hi, I am a young woman in an older male dominated field. I don't often get interrupted in meetings and the like because I don't talk idly. I speak up when I really am going to contribute, and I do so in a generally consice way. One thing that helps if "that one guy" is in the meeting or if someone is getting antsy is to look at them often when speaking to acknolwedge their pressence, but maintain a steady voice and finish your point (Your intent doesn't have to be combative, but people are still trained to pick up on those sorts of cues so don't be afraid to get your alpha male on). Things like adding cues when you wish to ceed the floor to someone else can also help them pick up on the fact that you are not giving those cues at other times.

Use your body language to help convey your intent. Some people invite interruption when they talk whether they mean to or not just because the way their tone changes as they speak or the cues they give off. For example, if someone poses an idea but seems unsure about it, any pauses or diminishing in tone seems like an invitation to build on what they started or move things towards a different idea. This certainly doesn't mean you can't talk about things that you are not sure of. Use physical cues to show that you are still thinking on it or have more to say (most of all don't use audible pauses) and maintain a strong tone (also avoid looking away from the group).

I know people who have a tendancy to start every sentance stong and then let it peeter out such that at times you couldn't really hear the end of the sentence if you wanted to. Check that you are not just exhaling your words like that, but that you clearly speak each phrase.

Oh, and bear in mind that interrupting others invites the behavior back. Not only because they might be annoyed by it, but (esp in a new group) they may percieve that as something you expect in conversation). I wouldn't really suggest interrupting those who are doing it to you, but the suggestions to just keep speaking and maintain your tone and volume are right on.

(and seconding realizing your place re: experience and expertise, especially in a work meeting)
posted by Feantari at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I agree with kaybdc and simpleton here. I was taught as a kid that interrupting people was extremely rude. I still can't do it and hate when it happens to me.

Sometimes in meetings, I notice that people who are insecure will talk too much because they feel like they have to prove themselves, but it can get annoying with all the time that's wasted. Meetings go on too long as it is. Maybe you are just soft-spoken and thoughtful, and maybe people appreciate that about you more than you know? Slowing down might help, in fact. And speaking a bit more loudly, and saying "excuse me, I'm not finished" if someone cuts in (but don't get mad.. which is a challenge in this situation, I know).
posted by citron at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2009

Several people have talked about group status in this thread and I disagree with them on it's important. Group status is (in my experience) a completely fluid thing that will change depending on the topic, the experience of the group members on the topic, known accomplishments, willpower, and the social skills of everyone involved.

Basically, it's more complicated then alpha female, beta male, gamma whatever. Social dynamics change so quickly that attempting to "raise your status" is (in my opinion) a worthless and less then productive endeavor.

On a more focused point your post is written in the passive tense. I have no idea if that carries over into your speech patterns but it's very easy to dismiss someone who sounds like they don't know what they're talking about.

Example, if I said "Apparently ... the building is on fire, wouldn't that be cool if it was?" A passive tone let's you get away with not taking a stance, and by extension not putting yourself in a position to be refuted. It's also bloated as hell, doesn't take a stance, and by extension doesn't put you in a position to make a point or be credited with said point. "The building is on fire." is socially riskier, it's a tone that doesn't allow you to say meaningless things.
posted by RawrGulMuffins at 2:42 PM on November 18, 2009

I really hate that there isn't an edit feature for reply's.
posted by RawrGulMuffins at 2:44 PM on November 18, 2009

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