I like the simple changes that make a big difference in our day to day lives. Take the ketchup bottle for example. When I was a lad, ketchup was packaged in glass bottles. Having watched a “bottling run” on a field trip to H J Heinz when I was in elementary school in Pittsburgh, I can tell you the ketchup went in the bottle easier than it came out. In fact, getting the ketchup out of the bottle was a physical challenge. You had to bang and bang on the bottom of the bottle just to get that thick ketchup moving. And once you did get it moving, you inevitably got too much. It was a real problem as your hamburger or hot dog got cold waiting and watching for the ketchup to move. Now, the bottles are upside down from how they were in my Wonder Bread years and you squeeze just the right amount out onto your burger or hot dog. In my day, Ketchup makers liked to brag about how thick their ketchup was. Talk about a “bottle neck.” So everyone hated it. Heinz even ran a set of commercials to both brag on the thickness of their ketchup and yet try to turn the “bottle neck” into a plus. Based on Carly Simon’s song, “Anticipation,” the ad showed a couple of kids waiting for their ketchup to move out of the bottle and excited about the wait. “Thick Heinz Ketchup, the taste that is worth the wait.”
Waiting for that ketchup took patience, a Herculean challenge for a pre-teen with the smell of a juicy, freshly cooked cheeseburger in front of them. And properly participating in a good conversation takes that same patience. What happens when we become impatient? We interrupt the speaker; the person who is trying to express themselves. If I had to pick the worst listening habit, especially between those who work together or are in a more intimate relationship, it is interrupting one another. The cost of dysfunctional communication? Priceless. Sub optimal performance in a team and emotional side effects and scars that lead to even worse performance. In a relationship – you tell me how long your partner remembers the last time you interrupted them.
So how can you stop or at least reduce your tendency to interrupt others? It happens so fast. And what do interrupters, including myself, say? “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Or, “I am sorry to interrupt, but…” Think about those phrases. Of course you didn’t “mean” to interrupt, but you did. And are you really sorry to interrupt? You may be sorry to have to do it, but not sorry you did it. So interrupting is an involuntary act? It happens so fast doesn’t it? If you want to interrupt less, you have to understand the root causes of interrupting and that interrupting someone comes at the end of a process.
Here are some of the root causes of the interrupting process and how to prevent or reduce the likelihood they will happen.
1. The slow talker. You recognize this interruption scenario. You are listening to someone and it just isn’t going fast enough and you have to pound the bottom of that ketchup bottle to get them talking faster. Don’t try to nudge them along. The person could be an introvert. Breathe and give them the time to develop and express their thoughts. Remember the tortoise and the hare. They may be the tortoise. And when you engage them – slow down yourself. This is a very effective sales and communication strategy: matching speech patterns.
2. The “I already know what you are going to say.” This interruption is common in interpersonal relationships – especially long term relationships. You presume what your partner is going to say based on years of interactions. Stop presuming that you know where someone’s thoughts are headed. Thoughts are actually very personal. Calm and empty your mind of preconceptions. Listen openly.
3. The pointless speech. Think John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. This is talking that seemingly has no point and when it is done – nobody quite knows what to say. If there is a group, they will all look around at each other and look dumbfounded. Try some body language for this talker. You might look at your watch; fidget. Most communication is non-verbal. Work that.
4. The conversation “Dominator.” This is the person who is constantly interrupting others and dominating the conversation. Taking on this person leads to a conversational brawl. Only one way to prevent this. Avoid Dominators. But what if they are on your team or a team lead? Find a time outside of the conversation to discuss this issue with the Dominator. If they don’t care, see “group think” below. Or set it up so his or her boss can see them in action as a Dominator. If the Dominator’s boss is a Dominator? You may need a new job.
5. The “You are wrong.” This interrupter disagrees with you so they need to correct you and the sooner the better. This is a mistake. If you interrupt people you disagree with, you may end up with a “group think” level of decision making. In other words, you are so set in your way and opinion that you lose the possibility – no matter how slight you think that is – of learning something. Go read some articles about “group think” like the classic Harvard Business Review case regarding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
6. The “You are stupid, I am superior to you.” This interrupter thinks they are smarter, more successful, have higher social status and are better looking than everyone else. This person feels entitled to interrupt all those who they feel superior to in some respect. If you are this person, your “superiority” will be short lived. Nobody will listen to you eventually. Get some humility in your diet by hanging around people who are smarter, more successful, have higher social status or are better looking than you. If you can’t find someone superior to yourself, you have serious problems that may require professional assistance.
7. The repeater. This is the person who seems to repeat things that have already been said. You have already heard the point they are making and so – who needs it Right? When a repeater says something that has already been said, they may well only be understanding it or absorbing it for the first time. People absorb ideas at such different rates and in such different ways. Some folks think conceptually and they get it fast. Other folks are engineers and they need to see the bricks in place more than once. Is one better than the other? Of course not. Once the engineer “sees the bricks” they tend to have a deeper understanding than the fast moving conceptual thinker.
What if you are the person who seems to get interrupted? If this is the case, then I suggest you examine the root causes and see which speech patterns you are engaged in that may be leading others to interrupt you!
Conversations that include interruptions, whatever the root cause, become choppy, convoluted and no one gets to express themselves fully. Instead, the conversation is competitive, like sparring. Pick your combat sport. It is a boxing or wrestling match. Interrupting facilitates arguments and disagreements because no one gets the ability to complete their thought and moreover negative emotions come into play like, anger, anxiety and even depression. Do you reach better solutions or consensus with incomplete thoughts and interruption? Tell me the last time you changed someone’s mind in an argument or “competitive conversation.”
Interrupting is the ultimate arrogant and selfish act. Learning not to interrupt someone is part of pre-school or kindergarten education. It is a lesson right up there with taking turns and learning to share. These are some of the earliest lessons we probably remember. We know better. And as with any change in behavior, there is a positive halo effect on other behaviors you have. Interrupt less and you are likely to be generally less rude, less aggressive and learn more from those around you. So pay attention to these root causes and watch out for them before they happen. And if you find yourself interrupted often, check yourself for the root causes. If you can think of interrupting as the equivalent of banging the bottom of an old ketchup bottle, then you understand how the victims of interrupting feel. Great listening, like great ketchup, is worth the wait. There, now I am done and I would love to hear your opinion, thanks for not interrupting..
If you are following along in my listening series, you should have already read, The Only Resolution You Need for 2015, To Listen Well is To Be Like Water, Love Song Lyrics and Listening Skills and Frosty, The Taz and Listening to Introverts and How to Listen to Your Angry Boss. All posts are under my profile on LinkedIn. This essay is the sixth in a planned series of 20 essays on listening.