Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 22;   May 30, 2018: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I

Chronic Peer Interrupters: I

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When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters?
The end of the line for a railroad track

The word interrupt, like most words, has multiple meanings and connotations. It denotes a break in the continuity of something, but it also suggests that the break can be temporary. When someone who's speaking is interrupted, we tend to think that he or she can resume after a short period. But that isn't always possible. The speaker can lose his or her train of thought, or the interrupter can refuse to yield back the "floor," or the interruption can be upsetting for the original speaker, often by design. Interruptions, therefore, are often terminations.

Interrupting contributors in meetings is a problem of long standing. Some interruptions are necessary and beneficial. For example, in rapidly changing situations, urgency might require pre-empting the normal order of a meeting. Because most groups have customs that permit these and other beneficial interruptions, they cause little difficulty unless the customs are abused.

More problematic are the interruptions that are little more than lightly cloaked power or dominance displays, or which arise out of anger, revenge, or disrespect for the person speaking. My focus here is the most common (and interesting) case, which involves problematic, frequent interruptions by one individual who's a peer or near-peer of the people he or she interrupts.

The effects of interruptions are growing more costly, because these days we conduct more of our meetings through electronic media — mostly telephone, but video and Web-based media too. Compared to face-to-face conversations, electronically mediated conversations are more affected by interruptions, because understanding two people speaking simultaneously is more difficult in electronic media than it is when we're face-to-face. And some electronic media can't even transmit the speech of two individuals simultaneously. Some systems choose just one at a time.

In electronically mediated conversation, interruptions induce frustration on the part of the person being interrupted. They can deprive listeners of access to important contributions. The results can affect the quality of group decisions.

Individuals who know how to deal with chronic interrupters can therefore help to enhance group effectiveness. Here's a survey of some tactics people use for dealing with chronic peer interrupters.

Pause strategically
I mentioned this tactic in an earlier issue, but it bears repeating. As we speak, some of our listeners are actually just waiting — they're looking for cues so they can jump in. They interpret pauses as cues. Pausing at punctuation — the period at the end of a sentence or the comma between two clauses — especially when accompanied by a breath, invites interruption. To avoid this, pause for breath only in mid-clause.
Talking In electronically mediated conversation,
interruptions can deprive listeners of
access to important contributions
this way is unnatural at first. For example, consider, "If only we had selected Vendor #2, <pause> the project would be on time." Compare that to: "If only we had selected Vendor #2, the project <pause> would be on time." Weird, but with practice it gets easier.
Make valuable contributions
If you're known for making valuable contributions, chronic interrupters are more likely to refrain from interrupting you, because others in attendance are more likely to object to interruptions when they occur.
One problem with this tactic is that making valuable contributions consistently is difficult. But filtering your contributions to screen out your more mundane or questionable remarks does help. Try waiting occasionally to see if someone else says what you were about to say. The more frequently you find others contributing what you had in mind, the more necessary it is to work on enhancing the originality and value of your remarks.
Don't ramble
When people ramble, they're more likely to be interrupted, because of the incoherence of what they're saying, and because they usually pause more as they try to find something to say.
Rambling is more likely to occur when you've started to speak before you really know what you want to say. So think before you speak. If you find yourself rambling — or about to ramble — stop talking. When you aren't talking, you can't be interrupted.

Next time I'll examine four more tactics people use to avoid being interrupted by peers while speaking in meetings.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Chronic Peer Interrupters: II  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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