3 Keys to Skillful Interrupting

You are familiar with the frustration of not being able to create the mutuality and connection you want in a given conversation. Maybe it’s your father-in-law sharing his views on politics via a monologue. Maybe it’s a coworker sharing more than you want to hear about the argument they had last night with their partner. Regardless of the details, you know you are not enjoying what’s happening, but the rules of politeness hold you hostage. You don’t want to seem rude or uncaring, so you give them your attention hoping someone else will interrupt them and set you free.

Learning to interrupt in a way that expresses your respect for the other person while still honoring your own needs is an important skill with three main aspects. Let’s take a look at each then give some examples of how skillful interrupting might sound. First, practice identifying the need up for you in a given moment. When you are not enjoying a conversation (or monologue as the case may be), your first impulse is to get out of it. The aversion you feel to what’s happening can distract you from what’s really important to you in the moment. When you focus on the desire to get away or get the other person to stop, you will find yourself either internally more desperate or externally saying something you regret.

Instead, use the feeling of aversion or frustration as a cue to ask yourself what need is up for you or where you would prefer to put your attention in the moment. Being able to identify the universal need doesn’t necessarily mean making a request of the other person. With the father-in-law example above, you may become aware that you are hoping for connection and would like to meet that need for connection with another family member present. 

If you can’t identify your needs in the moment, you can simply notice where you would prefer to focus your attention. As you hear yourself say internally, “I’m not enjoying this,” ask yourself, “What would I enjoy more right now?” 

The second aspect of skillful interrupting is about acknowledging the other person. Out of respect and care, you want some way to acknowledge the other person while not abandoning your own needs in the moment. The most simple form of acknowledgment is to repeat back the main point of what they have said. An empathy guess may require more of you, but more obviously communicates caring. An empathy guess could include a feeling and need or just imply one or the other. In the example with your father-in-law talking politics, an empathy guess might sound as simple as, “Sounds like you’re passionate about this topic?” Empathy guesses more vulnerable than something like this move the conversation deeper which may or may not be your goal. 

The third aspect of interrupting is expression. Express acknowledgment of the other person, your own need or priority, and make a request or take action. Depending on the other’s pacing you might wait for them to pause or you might jump in mid-sentence. For the most part, you will likely find that others are relieved that you are clear about listening or not listening. You may have been sending mixed messages; showing with your body that you are unhappy and want to leave and yet maintaining eye contact and apparent listening. Whether consciously perceived or not, these mixed messages contribute to building tension in both parties.

Lastly, let’s look at some examples of what it could sound like with the example of the father-in-law and the coworker.

Interrupting a Monologue of Your Father-in-law’s political views

  • “Sounds like you thought a lot about this and it's very important to you. I'm sorry, I’m noticing that I don't have much to add here and I also want to talk to cousin Jim while I have the chance. I'm going to go find him right now.” 

  • “I'm guessing you'd like to say more about this and at the same time I notice I'm feeling some tension because I don't want to miss talking to my cousin Jim while I have the chance. I'm going to excuse myself now.”

  •  “Sounds like you've read a lot about this and have more to share. I'd like to be a good listener, and at the same time I feel overwhelmed and I need to step out for some air.”

  • “I hear that politics is a big interest for you. I know for me it's hard to talk about without getting reactive about what's happening. I want to have a peaceful night. Would you be willing to talk about how the garden is going this year?”

Interrupting Your Coworker Sharing about Last Night’s Argument

  • “Yikes that sounds really painful. I feel torn. I really want to be there for you and at the same time I know I'm supposed to have this report done by noon. Can we talk at lunch?”

  • “That sounds tough. Sorry I can’t listen more. I'm feeling tense about being responsible around my work duties right now. I’m going to turn back to my work now.”

  • “I'm guessing it's hard to focus with that on your mind. Right now I'm going to get back to work, but maybe we could have lunch together if you want to talk more.”

  • “That sounds big. I'm sorry I can't offer you the quality listening you might need. I need to get ready for the next client.”

These words are limited in what they can communicate. What communicates more is the caring in your face and congruent body language. When you can hold both your caring and respect for the other person and your own needs with honor, you will find tension relaxes. With clarity and groundedness in honor for all present you naturally express what’s true in the moment.

Practice

Take a moment now to reflect on times when you were able to interrupt skillfully with honor for yourself and the other person. Review in detail the situation. Name everything that supported you in being able to do that in the moment.