What to Do When Someone Keeps Interrupting and Won’t Listen

A thought-provoking audience question was raised as the curtain closed on my Emotional Intelligence Boot Camp at the 2013 Government IT Symposium. I wanted to explore the answer, but I had to say, “Check the blog!”

The question surrounded a challenging co-worker who frequently interrupts, and infrequently listens. Like a game of Wack-A-Mole, whenever someone else tries to express a point of view, they get jumped on and shut down.

“How do you get someone who won’t listen to listen, and to stop cutting you off?”

We can only work with what is within our control, so  here are three Sagely suggestions to lead a new, more constructive pattern of safety and active listening.

To explore this, I’ve created a hypothetical composite of people I’ve met who cut others off and won’t listen. I’ve named him John.

Solution #1) Emotional Leadership

John keeps everyone on the defensive by interrupting, and he does that with a healthy dose of “fight” energy in his vibe. It’s an offensive strategy that shuts down his team. Since the pattern is ongoing, something must be reinforcing it. He’s doing it because it works.

You want to reduce the effectiveness of this overtly masculine pattern to make room for new possibilities. Since his pattern feeds off of emotional upset, I recommend combatting it with appreciation, excitement, and positive affirmation.

Appreciation disarms interrupters because it takes away the food they’re feeding on. They jump on you to experience power through your fear and frustration, but appreciation starves the power, and feeds new possibilities. They don’t expect it, so it diffuses them.

“What can I appreciate about this person, their perspective, or even the interruption itself, that’s genuine?”

Perhaps John’s a good “acid test.” Might you appreciate the way he toughens you, or how his behavior provides regular leadership communication practice? Maybe you appreciate his predictability, or that you only have to deal with him two days a week.

John’s feeding on your weakness, so the more you can appreciate him, the more you starve the power-source or the pattern.

Not only that, John needs to feel listened to too! Spot the irony here. You’re problem is that John doesn’t listen, but he needs to feel heard as well. Verbalize his point. Show him you listened.

I learned very early on that a great way to deflate a challenger is to affirm them for challenging me. I try to state their case better than they did, even help them make their point better. Then I can counter it if I want. Confirm with John that you understand. Thank him for bringing it up. Be excited about it. Model active listening.

Solution #2) Ask them to repeat what you said.

If you’re actively listening, that means you are hearing, and then repeating back what they said, and confirming that you understood.

“John, let me make sure I’m hearing you right. You’re saying… “

When you’re actively listening, you can also actively ask for them to do the same.

“John, I want to make sure you understood my point. You don’t have to agree with it, but can you give my perspective back to me just so I know you heard me?”

Teaching them to actively listen requires both you modeling it and requiring that they practice it too. They won’t do it as well as you, so be sure to affirm any baby steps they make in that direction.

Solution #3) Lead the conversation.

The best way to lead a conversation is to design it like a story, with the main character of us, the people in the room.

Every story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the challenging situation warranting a discussion. The middle is the discussion. The ending is the better situation you’re trying to get to. So start off your meeting by defining the beginning, and the end.

“Team, we’re meeting today because we have a serious customer complaint about our software. By the end of this meeting, we need to define our position and decide how we’re going to respond to this complaint at tomorrow’s meeting.”

This structure aligns everyone to exactly one problem, and one outcome. The beginning and end. Then you meet about how to get there (the middle). Don’t start discussing until you’ve solicited verbal agreement from everyone (including John).

“Does everyone agree that the topic we’re discussing is the customer complaint, and success here is defined as having a clear position and a plan for how to talk about it to them tomorrow? I need a show of hands.”

You can also set set some rules that empower you to redirect.

“I want to remind you all that everyone in this room has a valid perspective, and each one of us will get an opportunity to share their point of view on this. It’s important that you share your perspective and if anyone interrupts or dominates here, I’m going to step in and redirect them. Is that clear and do I have your agreement?”

You may have to get tough with them. Tough is “stern,” (technically, stern is a low level of anger delivered along with direct eye-contact). Anger is good for showing seriousness, and it’s kindly delivered if you start on appreciation, then redirect sternly, and then appreciate again (the appreciation sandwich).

(Appreciate) “John, I really value your perspective, (stern) and I’ve been working hard to listen to everything you’ve had to say, and I expect the same in return. (Appreciate) Thanks for letting me say that, John, because together we’ll figure this thing out.”

The Head/Heart Solution in Review

I didn’t have the time to answer the question thoroughly in the workshop, but hopefully this got you, and the audience member who asked the question at the IT Symposium, closer to a useful strategy for dealing with interrupters and people who don’t listen.

Together, appreciation, affirmation, and active listening can remove the food source for disruptive communication behavior. Combined with conversation leadership skills, they can empower you to lead the tone, as well as the content the conversation. That’s a “head/heart solution” that will encourage better communication, and more positive body language, for a “room tone” that is safe and supportive for your important conversation.

Share your thoughts below.

 

13 Comments

  1. Pam Olstad on December 12, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Good reminders. I’ll continue to work with those I know to have trait and consider myself as I know I do it too!

    • Dean Hyers on December 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      Well, Pam, we all end up on both sides of this. Sometimes we’re jumped on and other times we’re the ones doing the jumping. The question was initially raised around an extreme case, and you’re probably not that kind of extreme.

  2. Sandeep Saxena on December 12, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Excellent article that provides great skills to align with the detractor and continue your point of view.

    • Dean Hyers on December 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      Thank you Sandeep. I’m honored!

  3. Chuck Kitchen on December 12, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Dean:

    What a great piece.
    It is an all too common issue to deal with and using the steps you have outlined,I can see a better outcome versus the usual “argument”. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Dean Hyers on December 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      Whew. Arguments! Yeah Chuck, if we can avoid an another argument, all the better, eh?

  4. Vaughn Dierks on December 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Great suggestions – as someone who needs to facilitate public meetings and discussions regularly I will be putting these topics to the test as there is always at least one person who tries to control the room using those traits.

    • Dean Hyers on December 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Vaughn, I want to hear what happens as you try using the techniques. I use them too, but our readers will get more out of your sharing out there in the field. Let us know, even if it’s a month or later from now. We’ll be watching!

  5. Tom Esch on December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Dean,

    As always insightful and useful info. We do have people who interrupt like this, even here in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 reasons to be Nice. I would only add: the reality of positional power and psychological rank. Those who have higher position and/or psychological rank (the capacity to ruffle feathers or stay calm when other ruffle) often are doing the interrupting. Being aware of this and owning the rank/power you do have is another part of the solution. Tom

    • Dean Hyers on December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks, Tom. That’s a different dimension to the equation. If you have perceived rank or authority, you may feel that you have fewer RISKS in the way of cutting people off, and less of an absolute requirement to listen! True, true!

      I was writing from the vantage of either “equal players on a team” or “you’re the leader and someone on your team is difficult in that way.” You’re pointing out that there’s a new dimension to working with the interrupter who is a powerful person with authority or rank.

      You’re right. Rank can spin or even trump the approach, or at least the conversational leadership ideas (like rule-setting and asking for active listening in return).

      I would say that I’ve tried my approach with people who out-rank me, and it has worked, but I don’t want to get anyone fired for standing up against their boss with rules, or upsetting a powerful person in whatever circle you’re spinning in.

      A successful example a Hollywood celebrity I worked for who had status, power, rank, and ego, with the ability to fly off the handle and show no mercy by way of being reasonable. You would know who this is, but I can’t name him. He was indeed a specimen known as “non-listeniticus interruptus.”

      Appreciation, affirmation, and active-listening (on my part) worked really well as described. What would not have worked at all would have been asking him to actively listen, nor would any version of rule-setting. This man was above the rules and I would have heard, “You’ll never work in this town again” had I overtly tried to lead him.

      Actually, I think I did hear, “If you don’t get this right I’ll bury you so deep in lawsuits you’ll never see the light of day again!” (This of course around an issue that he himself had caused, but that didn’t matter when he had the rank and the power.)

      So I covertly led him, with both our best intents in mind. In that case I appreciated and repeated back so he felt heard for precisely what he had said. Additionally, I verbally recognized the validity of his perspective to the group, and worked to help him state his case (even when it was a case against me). I showed the confidence to help him put his perspective to words.

      When I voiced his perspective as well or better than he did, with lots of compassion and appreciation, some of the wind left his sails.

      Story-structuring the conversation also worked, as long as I made HIM the main character. I quietly led the conversation as long as I appreciated, actively listened, and structured my dialogue from the vantage of, “HE is in what challenging situation, what can I do as a solution, to get HIM to a better situation.”

      He never quite actively listened back, but he went from interrupting me 90% of the time, to cutting me off less than 10% of the time, and I suspect because we did reach a reasonable agreement that he was indeed listening (although passively).

      So try what makes sense, and recognize there are more difficult scenarios that may break down without special sensitivity.

      ps: And I just checked. We are the land of 11,842 lakes of over ten acres minimum size. And as per the 10,000 reasons to be nice, the number 1 on my mind is the COLD (warm hearts needed here).

  6. Cher Lindberg on December 17, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Dean,
    These tips are extremely valuable! It fits with the philosophy in your networking classes of always looking for the good in the other person. Disarm them with listening charm. I find it extremely annoying when someone continuously interrupts me and I imagine them as a little kid, constantly trying to get attention. I’ll be more focused in the future to incorporate your ideas.

    • Dean Hyers on December 19, 2013 at 6:37 am

      I like you’re little kid analogy, which reminds me thusly that if you respond with patients and loads of appreciation (to the annoying little kid behavior), that puts you in a very grown-up character/role.

      If anyone else is in the room, they will surely think, “Wow, look at Cher’s patience and calm,” and the other person will look immature and rude. If you respond defensively, it looks more like the annoying little kid is getting the better of you so I like the approach in light of the “annoying little kid” role that the interrupter plays. It puts you in the “teacher” role.

  7. Interrupter's Sister on March 31, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    Clearly none of you have ever dealt with my sister. She does ALL the talking, interrupts constantly and chronically, doesn’t listen to anyone, and somehow, and I’m not sure how she does this but she doesn’t take a breathe. That would explain her high blood pressure and hyperventilating.

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