Having a conversation with a colleague or customer who constantly interrupts you is one of life's most frustrating experiences, and it happens all the time. But there are effective tactics you can use to shut down chronic interrupters, at least long enough to get your own point across.
For many viewers of the first presidential debate between president Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the biggest lesson was this: When there are nonstop interruptions, it's difficult to learn anything at all. The Commission on Presidential Debates got the message, and announced it would make changes to the debate format for the remaining debates before Election Day.
But most of us, even those who aren't running for public office, have encountered serial interrupters in both our work and personal lives. Are there effective tactics for shutting down a serial interrupter? The answer is yes, and it turns out there are both nice ways and not-so-nice ways to do it. Here's some of what the experts advise.
The nice ways:
1. Discourage interruptions before they happen.
If you're about to tell an involved story or make a complex proposal, you may be able to protect yourself from interruptions by making that clear up front, workplace consultant Laura Rose told CBS News. She suggested saying something like, "There are a lot of different pieces to this explanation, so please bear with me." Explain that once you're done, you will want the other person's input. By letting the other person know in advance that their opinion will be heard and valued, you're encouraging that person to hear you out and to listen carefully to what you're about to say so as to provide a worthwhile response. It's win-win.
2. Ask the rest of the group for input.
If the same person has interrupted you repeatedly, one tactic is to say something like, "We've heard from Sam a few times. Does anyone else have anything to contribute?" You're nicely putting the interrupter on notice that he or she has been hogging the conversation and it's time to let others speak. You're also encouraging the less assertive members of your group to speak up, which is always a useful thing to do.
3. Ask yourself if the interruption has value.
Some people interrupt because their brains work very fast, they've already grasped the information you're conveying, and they want to speed up the pace of the discussion, explains writer Temma Ehrenfeld in a post at Psychology Today. If you stop and listen to the interrupter and ask a couple of clarifying questions before firmly leading the conversation back to your original point, you will come across as more interested in the issues than in yourself, she explains. And you may gain valuable insight. That brief acknowledgement might also satisfy these smart interrupters and keep them from interrupting again.
The not-so-nice ways:
4. Play "Verbal Chicken."
Futurist and podcaster Rose Eveleth uses this term to describe an extremely simple practice: When someone interrupts you, just keep talking. "This can go on for an excruciatingly long time, and usually involves the two getting louder and louder until they are both shouting their points at the same time. But eventually, someone does stop. And the other person wins," she writes. Presuming you win the game of chicken, make sure to jump to your strongest point as soon as the other person has stopped talking, so you can reengage everyone's attention.
5. Ask if you can finish.
I once worked on a team with a man who regularly said "Let me finish!" -- and sometimes actually pounded the table -- whenever someone interrupted him. It was pretty effective and, as Eveleth points out, some variation of this phrase gets said in almost every talk radio show or podcast discussion. You don't have to pound the table; you can say something less aggressive like, "Hang on a sec, let me just finish this thought."
6. Pretend to ask a question.
Eveleth calls this the "Question Sneak Attack." As the interrupter talks on, cut in by saying, "Can I ask you a question?" That will likely cause the person to pause the interruption because people who are holding forth usually love answering questions.
Now that you have the floor again, don't ask a question. Return to your original point instead. You can disguise it as a question by preceding it with, "Do you realize that ... " or a similar phrase.
7. Just start laughing.
If all else fails, Eveleth says, start laughing as the interrupter speaks. "Not a little chuckle, a full laugh so that they can hear you. It is incredibly distracting to them, because they have no idea what is funny, and it can fluster them enough to throw them off their train."
The one caveat is that eventually the interrupter or someone else may ask you what's so funny and you should have an answer. Depending on the situation, you may or may not want to say something like, "I find it hilarious how badly you've misunderstood the issues," or "The way you refuse to let me speak just cracks me up."
While none of these tactics is guaranteed to protect you from interrupters, trying one or another, or maybe more than one in combination, should help you be heard instead of talked over. Getting interrupted is always unpleasant, but you don't have to suffer it in silence. Make sure you get to have your say.