by Steve Adubato, PhD

Interrupting. We do it all the time. Many of my clients are working on their listening skills and they are trying to stop interrupting so much in conversations, in meetings, or when communicating in other circumstances.

However, sometimes interrupting gets a bad name. What I mean is, not all interrupting is bad communication. When you are cutting people off and finishing their sentence, that’s bad. When you can’t wait to get your thought out because you think it’s the greatest idea in the world—and you interrupt in order to say it—that can be a problem as well. We interrupt out of boredom or being distracted. That never makes the other person feel great.

But there are other interruptions that can be extremely constructive in our every day communication. Consider the following scenario. You are talking to a client and he is explaining his company’s problems and challenges. As he goes on, he brings up a situation that you don’t fully understand. He has you curious and a bit confused. You then interrupt by saying; “John, I am sorry for interrupting, but I want to better understand exactly what you are talking about. Can you give me an example when this problem is at its worst?” John then provides such an example and your appreciation and understanding of the company’s circumstance is greatly enhanced.

Think about it. That’s a pretty good interruption and if you hadn’t interrupted, you may never have gained this insight. Further, by interrupting in this fashion, you communicate to John that understanding him and his company matters so much to you that you are not simply going to sit there silently.

Here’s another example. You are talking to a friend or family member, and she raises a point that you have very strong feelings about. You also know she is about to move on to several other points. What do you do? Consider this option; “Jane, I really appreciate what you are saying, and I know you have many other points that you want to make. But I really need to stay on this point. Are you saying that…?”

Again, you’ve interrupted, but in communication, motives matter. You are interrupting because you don’t want this critically important point that Jane has raised to go by and then try to go back to it 10 minutes later when she is finally finished raising four other points. That conversation is not a natural one. It’s too linear. It is not real. Interrupting sometimes can greatly enhance the conversation. It can make it more dynamic. More relevant. More real.

The point here is that simply saying “I’m going to interrupt less in my communication” is a simplistic approach that often yields little value. Of course you want to cut out rude interruptions or those that are a product of our narcissism or being self-centered. None of those are good because they have to do with us and not more effectively connecting with the other person. But when your interruptions are intended to better understand, clarify, elaborate or challenge in a respectful way, good things can happen.

The bottom line is that some of the most engaging and effective communicators interrupt—sometimes a lot. In fact, it is because they are so engaged and want to truly understand that they artfully interrupt at critical points. It’s not an accident or by chance. Rather, it is a smart and strategic communication tool.