How to Listen Without Interrupting

We all know someone who loves to interrupt. Let’s be honest: interrupting is rude as hell. We view people who interrupt as more assertive and less sociable (Chambliss, 1992), and interrupting makes it seem as though we are not listening or do not care. In fact, it can make the entire conversation or engagement less productive: One study showed that those who were interrupted tended to reciprocate the interruption rather than submitting (Farley et. al., 2010).

However, we all are guilty of interrupting sometimes, whether with a significant other, a friend, or a coworker. Here’s an overview of types of interruption, and tips for reducing our own tendencies to interrupt.

 

Overlap Interrupting

Overlap is when two people speak at once. This might include:

  • Cooperative sentence building, where the listener participates in the sentence
  • Verification, where the speaker gives or requests verification of a statement or question. This can also be cooperative.
  • Choral repetition, where two people say almost the same thing at the same time.

Overlap is sometimes considered interrupting because it does involve talking over the speaker, however it is not definitively good or bad. In some contexts and cultures, it is not only accepted but expected, and can give the sense that the listener is engaged and participating (Tannen, 1983).

Is it rude to jump in and finish the speaker’s sentence with them?

Is overlap interruption bad

Jumping in at the end of a sentence and mirroring what the speaker is saying would fall under “choral repetition,” which is a form of overlap. This might be okay in some situations, but in others it comes across as inappropriate or rude.

If “choral repetition” overlap is a habit that you have noticed, there’s a good chance that you are doing it too much or in the wrong contexts.

First, reflect on your motivations behind choral repetition. Are you joining the chorus because you are genuinely excited or engaged? Or are you trying to impress your conversational partner? If it's the latter, you may want to take steps towards reducing this type of overlap.

You can also take a moment at the end of a conversation with a friend or close family member and ask them. Did they notice that you were jumping in and repeating what they said? Did it bother them?

This type of overlap may seem completely normal and cooperative to them, or it may come across as intrusive and rude. Every conversation is different, but asking those you are most comfortable with can give you a better idea of how they are receiving it.

Intrusive Interrupting

Intrusive interrupting is an interruption made to take the speaker’s turn and dominate the conversation. Unlike overlap, it is not cooperative and may involve changing the speaker and/or changing the direction or topic of the conversation. Intrusive interruption may also be used to disagree with the speaker (Murata, 1994).

Intrusive interrupting is the type of interrupting that we most often see as “rude interrupting” in American culture.

How to Interrupt Less

You should work to limit interrupting if you have noticed that you use intrusive interruption to take away the spotlight or change the topic, or if you suspect your use of overlap is inappropriate. Here are a few tips for reducing interruption:

Focus on the Conversation, Don’t Multitask

How not to interrupt: don't multi task

Multitasking sets the stage for creating interruptions and distractions. If you focus on what the speaker is saying, you will be less inclined to use interruption to change the subject. Alternatively, f you are doing or thinking about other things, you will be more likely to get distracted and lead the conversation in a different direction.

Listen Actively

Listening is a very active process, so focus on a listening action: re-establish eye contact, smile, or nod if appropriate. When they finish sharing what they have to say, continue active listening by clarifying or acknowledging their words.

You might say, "I want to make sure I really understand what you mean. You're saying, X, Y, and Z; am I close?" This will help you resolve any misunderstandings and show them that you were truly listening.

If the topic of your interruption has still not been addressed after clarifying, it becomes your turn to speak and you can naturally and politely move the conversation where you wanted to take it.

Be Aware of Your Interruptions

If you have read this far in the article, you are probably aware that you sometimes interrupt -- and you are trying to change that! Self-awareness is the first step towards reducing your tendency to interrupt. Make a mental note when you feel inclined to interrupt, or if you notice that you already have interrupted.

What To Do If You Accidentally Interrupt Someone

What to do if you accidentally interrupt

With practice you will become more aware of your tendencies to interrupt, and you will be more likely to catch yourself when you slip into an intrusive interruption. If you catch yourself interrupting, try apologizing and giving the turn back to the original speaker. Try saying: "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, please continue." Your conversational partner certainly already noticed your interruption, so pointing it out will show self-awareness and progress towards improved listening skills.

Improved communication means improved relationships. Take steps to become more aware of your tendency to interrupt, and focus on active listening instead of multitasking.


3 comments

  • Great tips! I need to be more mindful of finishing people’s sentences/thoughts and be more actively listening.

    Yen (Glossycover)
  • Interrupting is such a rude thing to do. No matter what the reason

    Erika Ravnsborg
  • I think we’re all guilty of interrupting every now and then. Being aware of it is a good thing. Thanks for the tips!

    Zwia

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