When Interrupting Is Okay

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Cutting someone off mid-sentence — at least in the United States — is the conversational equivalent of dipping your finger into the shared plate of hummus at dinner: it makes you look like an inconsiderate ass. When you interrupt, you seem like the kind of person who didn’t ever learn basic manners growing up; the kind of person that other people would rather not spend time with. 

Given the above, you probably avoid interruptions and view them as incorrect.

While in most cases this is a good belief (from personal experience, for example, constantly interrupting your romantic partner is not great), it is uniquely not true at work. Interruptions at work are not only often okay, but they are sometimes an obligation if you care about the people you are working with (and for).

Why people interrupt

When somebody interrupts you, they really want to interrupt you — to the point where they are okay committing a cultural taboo to do so. When this happens, there are two possible paths:

• They interrupt you and the conversation advances to its natural end state more quickly.

• They don’t interrupt you, and you continue droning on while they are mentally discarding your words.

Interrupting is always going to happen. It’s just a matter of whether it happens out loud (they actually interrupt) or silently (they completely disregard what you say after the point where they wanted to interrupt). This is important because of the goal of work.

The goal of work

There are a bunch of ways to describe the point of work, but one simple one is this: you show up to work to get good (or great) work done as effectively as possible. That is generally what you are being paid for. That in mind, now let’s look at interruptions from both sides of the coin.

Why interrupting can be useful

First, imagine you are the person speaking. This can go two ways:

• You speak for 3 minutes with your thoughts on a topic.

• You speak for 20 seconds with your thoughts before someone interrupts you.

In either scenario, after 20 seconds the person you are speaking to has decided that there is something wrong with what you are saying (or something they think is crucial to add). The only difference is that in the scenario where they interrupted you, they saved everyone ~160 seconds of time.

Now flip the script — imagine you are the person who wants to interrupt. After 20 seconds, the person speaking has said something you think either completely invalidates their point or needs some additional context from you before the conversation can usefully continue.

If you let the person drone on for 3 minutes — even when you know something is wrong — then you are doing a disservice to yourself, the other person, and anyone else in the meeting. You are keeping a secret to yourself for 3 minutes, which wastes everyone’s time (these meetings sometimes have many people).

For example: imagine we are at dinner together. I get an unappealing sliver of collard greens stuck in between my teeth. Not telling me about this is similar to not interrupting — you could say something useful, but are electing not to because it is uncomfortable. This is rude, selfish, and bad for all parties involved.

Interrupting is not well-liked. You could even call out this taboo:

Hey, sorry to interrupt - I know it’s annoying - but I wanted to mention that [important thing].

And you still need to be careful when you interrupt, of course — this essay is not an Interrupt All You Want card. Don’t be an asshole. One way to avoid being an asshole is to know about the risks of interrupting and how to avoid them.

The risk of interrupting when you shouldn’t

In some work cultures interrupting is encouraged and in some work cultures it is not. (In any case, there are always people who interrupt when it is ineffective). In general, you should not interrupt in the following situations.

By interrupt, we don’t mean just interrupting out loud. We mean the moment that you stop actively listening to what someone is saying.

• You are not very confident (>90% confidence) that you have the context you need to interrupt. If you interrupt and you are wrong, you have just wasted even more time than not interrupting.

• Interrupting would be more damaging more than it would be useful (e.g. someone is giving a big presentation to the CEO and they got a tiny detail wrong).

• Interrupting is clearly counterproductive due to the disposition of the person you are interrupting.

• The only reason you want to interrupt is because you want to share your opinion. If this is the case, try asking questions instead of sharing your opinion outright.

What to do now

Some people might read this essay as permission to be an asshole. That’s not the point — you definitely should not be an asshole. The point is actually that you should be kind, and the two ways to be kind are either to actively listen or to interrupt kindly. Don’t sit in the middle, discarding what somebody says halfway through their monologue without once speaking up — that is the one truly rude option here.

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