Communal calls bring us together in a pandemic. But they also threaten to pull us apart, especially if everyone talks at once.
There’s an art to effective interruption. In face-to-face meetings, you can read others’ body language and gauge to what extent jumping into a conversation will work for or against you.
For example, you can look around the conference table and see that your colleagues are getting antsy as a motor mouth holds court. You thus figure it’s safe to interrupt to advance the agenda.
In video chats, by contrast, you’re less certain when and how to shut down an over-talker. In March—when Zoom was a novelty—you may have deferred to babblers and let them repeat themselves, talk in circles and generally waste everyone’s time. But as the new normal sets in, you’re less willing to keep quiet.
Ideally, the host moderates the discussion by establishing ground rules, recognizing who speaks when and keeping participants on track. But some facilitators are either too passive or too verbose. We’re all in trouble when the person in charge doubles as a rambling, let-me-think-out-loud type.
If you’re going to interrupt, it pays to do it well. Apply these five tips:
1. Count to three. Mentally say 1-2-3 to confirm others have concluded their remarks. Many speakers sound like they’re wrapping up, but they’re merely pausing. By giving them a little cushion—a three-beat pocket of silence—before you chime in, you avoid talking over someone else.
When multiple voices erupt at once, confusion reigns. It gets worse if two or more participants refuse to stop talking, creating dueling steamrollers who drown out one other. As U.S. congressional committees meet via videoconference, reports of lawmakers talking over their colleagues (and forgetting to mute or unmute) indicate that interruption runs rampant at the highest levels.
2. Piggyback on the chat hog. Once you decide to interrupt a nonstop talker, do it with grace. Wait for the speaker to inhale (even the speediest talkers need to pause on occasion) and find an opening to build on what you just heard.
“Contextualize it by saying, ‘In the interest of time…’ or ‘I just want to add to what Chris is saying…’ rather than taking a personal swipe at the motor mouth,” said Rob Kendall, of “Workstorming: Why Conversations At Work Go Wrong and How to Fix Them.”
3. Number your points. Interruptions carry more weight when they’re concise and add value. Cutting someone off just to reinforce a previous point or share an extraneous observation is riskier.
To maximize the positive impact of your interruption, wait until you have two points to make. Then say, “Two quick points…” and reel them off succinctly. Packing lots of substance into just a few sentences will endear you to the group—and may redirect the focus to what matters most (at least to you).
4. Pounce on transitions. In business meetings, there are usually moments when everyone prepares to transition from one agenda item to the next. An effective host invites questions or comments before proceeding. But if that doesn’t happen, you may want to pounce before it’s too late.
Use phrases such as, “Before we move on, I have a comment…” or “To clarify what we just decided…” Tying down loose ends in the moment works better than staying mum and trying to raise your issues 10 or 20 minutes later when the conversation shifts far afield from your area of concern.
5. Affirm and go. There’s a big difference between disagreeable interrupting and genial interrupting. Contradicting someone might backfire (“No, that’s wrong”), while affirming what you hear (“Yes, that’s true and let me add…”) softens your edge.
“You never want to embarrass the speaker or do anything that feels aggressive,” said Sarah Gershman, an executive speech coach in Washington, D.C. “But it you say ‘Yes’ or ‘Exactly,’ the speaker feels validated.”