Leadership Advice

Managers: How to be a ‘strategic interrupter’

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Growing up, you may have been admonished by family or teachers that it is rude to interrupt people.

It is. 

And yet we do it. (*Points at self*)

We have our reasons for interrupting others, not all of them bad. But even the good-to-neutral ones have downsides and must be managed carefully. Let’s review reasons, downsides and how to be strategic.

We’re extroverts who get energized by the interaction of conversations. We happily jump in to connect by finishing peoples’ sentences for them. 

  • The Downside: We may seem more domineering than friendly, the speaker may feel cut off, and our visions may differ.
  • The Strategy: Pause. Think about how often you do this move. Pay attention to how people respond. What works among friends or family  may not endear you to strangers — or colleagues.

We’re in charge of meetings and think some people are too long-winded. We cut them off in the interest of time. 

  • The Downside: People don’t feel heard. They keep track of who gets more time than others, even if you don’t.
  • The Strategy: Establish time parameters for meetings and set agreements about editing ourselves for comments and presentations, along with an understanding that alerting people to time boundaries is an act of efficiency, not silencing.

People come to us for advice and tell a story. We believe we know the answer while they’re midway through the narrative, so we pop in with it.

  • The Downside: The first story we hear is rarely the full story. I’ve learned that from my work as a coach. Truncating the talk to provide your thoughts may keep you from learning more and helping the other person discover an answer.
  • The Strategy: Keep listening. Interrupt only if the story drags on. Either way, tell the person you’d like to ask a few questions. Make them open-ended and non-judgmental. “Can you tell me about why this seems to be happening more now?” “What would the best, most realistic outcome look like?”

Someone is sharing something that is factually incorrect. You cut them off to let them and everyone else know what you believe is accurate.

  • The Downside: If you’re not tactful in your interruption, you can come across as a bully, trying to embarrass the other person. Make certain you give them the maximum amount of respect possible. 
  • The Strategy: Unless what they are saying is toxic, let them finish and then introduce your information. (“Julie, I want to be of help here. The survey you cited is several years old and its methodology has been criticized. I have some newer info…”)

Someone is saying something toxic. It is racist, sexist or any other hurtful, harmful verbiage directed at you or others, one-on-one or in a group setting. You shut them down in the moment by calling out the inappropriateness of their words.

  • The Downside: Your relationship with that person will take a hit. Depending on who it is, you could face undeserved retribution — or your courageous interruption and intervention may lead to a better relationship if the person chooses to learn.
  • The Strategy: Be guided by your values as you speak up for yourself and others. If the other person has a good track record with you and others, but is speaking from apparent ignorance, make it a teaching moment. (“I have to stop you — because you just called someone’s decision ‘retarded.’ That word causes so much harm for people with developmental challenges and everyone who cares about them. It’s wrong. And I know you don’t want to hurt people.”) But if it’s someone who is known to have malicious intent, be direct. (“That word is absolutely unacceptable in this conversation and on this team.”)

As a manager, it’s important to be strategic about your interruptions because they reflect your use of power. Better to be known as someone who hears people out rather than cuts them off.


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