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One day, I just stopped interrupting

Posted October 19, 2015

A few years ago, I was in a work environment where there was a habit of people interrupting people and talking over them, “steamrolling them”, in meetings constantly.

You probably are familiar with the pattern: person A is making a statement, and person B feels the need to jump in. So person B starts to make their point and talk over person A, and both continue talking now at the same time. At this point, you have two adults both making their statements at eachother and to the room, both just talking as if the other person isn’t there. Like 2 radio stations on at the same volume. Then it’s a grudge match of steamrollers on who is going to abruptly stop and let the other win the battle. Maybe it’s a seniority thing, maybe it’s a assertiveness thing, maybe it’s a rudeness thing. I don’t have any certain theory on this I need to project here. It’s just a thing that happens.

There’s another version of this where person A is making their statement, and person B starts to talk each time person A takes a breath or has the slightest of pauses, but person A starts again. Person B only ever gets out the first syllable of a word, again and again. “yeah-“, “but-“, “yeahbut-“. Person A keeps going until they’ve gotten their entire idea out uninterrupted, ignoring or disregarding person B’s attempts to interject. The steamroll is unchallenged.

I had this habit as well. Not nearly as bad as others modeling it to me, but it became a “steamroll or die!” situation.

I made a commitment

One day, after watching a pair of co-workers who seemed to be habituated into having steamroll battles every meeting, I made 2 commitments to myself

Commitment 1: I will not talk “at the same time” as someone else, regardless of who was talking first. If I’m in the middle of presenting an idea, argument, opinion, or whatever else and someone jumps in and starts talking “over” me in that steamroll fashion, I stop and just let them go. Typically, the person gets out their thought/rebuttal/opinion, and I can continue on. Or if it’s worthy of debate, I can take a detour from whatever I was saying and address it.

I could choose to hold my ground and keep talking louder as if the other person doesn’t exist, but when I watch others do it, it just doesn’t feel right to me. If I were to continue talking, I feel like now neither party will really be heard and it becomes an ego war. The rest of the room probably can’t follow two voices at once, and likely the ego war is making them roll their eyes or tune out. But what I think is most important is that successfully winning the battle in that moment probably doesn’t matter in the slightest. Trying to win the interruption arms-race is purely a function of ego, or obliviousness – or both.

It is like a freight train passing by. I just letting rumble though, make its noise, and then pass by. There’s no need for me to try and speak over the train; I know that it will soon be finished and I can continue.

Or – maybe the point I was personally trying to make didn’t matter that much anyways. I am constantly finding that upon reflection in the moment, I wasn’t saying something so important that it needed to be heard at all costs.

This commitment doesn’t just apply to work, even though that is where it started. I try to do the same thing with family and friends. Let people talk. When I feel myself start, the effect is even more apparent when with a friend. I feel so selfish and disconnected when I start to talk over someone. So I just don’t.

Commitment 2: When someone is talking, I stay silent until they finish or find a long enough pause where I won’t be getting into a steamroll battle. This one is harder to do. Sometimes, people simply have a fair amount of information to convey and it takes a while. Other times, someone might like to hear themselves talk and may have a habit of talking way too long, or repeating themselves and explaining the same idea in multiple ways, all linked into one big verbal chain.

When I’m in these types of situations, it’s hard to know when it’s clear to jump in. I still find myself not knowing when a pause is really a pause and starting to speak, only to have to clap my trap shut. After the first time, I usually am able to stay quiet until the person is definitely done with their idea, or have paused long enough that it doesn’t become a steamroll battle.

This is similar to commitment 1, the difference being that in commitment 1, I am the one talking first. In commitment 2, someone else is talking. Both of them are essentially the same core principle: don’t talk while others are talking.

A Question I Ask Myself

I read something somewhere, and I sadly can’t cite it as I don’t remember where, but it was about a startup founder and his partners talking about if working more hours, or working a weekend, would “effect the yearly numbers.” If the answer was “it probably won’t”, then don’t kill yourself to finish something that really doesn’t impact the bigger picture goal in either direction.

I find myself asking this in my head more and more: does what I have to say really effect the larger outcome we’re working towards? Or conversely: will staying silent really effect the larger outcome? If the answer is yes, then I find a way to work it in without violating the commitments. If the answer is no, I find myself either writing it down, or just letting it pass by like my own mental freight train.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Since I don’t engage in steamroll battles, I don’t feel dumb/bad/mad when I lose (since you can’t lose a game you don’t play).
  2. Talking over friends is selfish and unnecessary, and one of the biggest reasons to try letting people finish.
  3. I get to find out if what I am saying is important to me, or if it’s my ego just needing to hear itself.
  4. Once you stop, it really highlights how disruptive and counterproductive it is to meetings and conversations.
  5. Most of what I have to say (and you too), isn’t that important in the moment. And if it is, it can wait the few minutes until the other person has stopped talking.
  6. By not engaging in an activity I find counterproductive, I am able to have more influence over how, if, or when, I respond.

Out of all these, there is one more realization that is the hardest to accept, but the most helpful. The biggest realization of all is: Once someone is able to get their strong, possibly ego driven thought expressed, they usually settle down and don’t feel the need to interrupt any longer.

Mind over matter – If you don’t mind, it don’t matter

I am not sure I would say that these commitments bring me more inner peace or any other sort of tangible benefit. I do know that I would have felt like an ass in the past by steamrolling people, so saving myself from that is nice. Most of all, I just didn’t like when other people did it, either directly to me, or to others in the room. It felt like a bad habit and one day (I still remember the exact meeting, and even the chair I was sitting in) I just said “I’m not going to do that any more.”

Maybe try it for a month. I like it. If for nothing else, it saves me from having to feel the negative emotion around both winning or losing the steamroll. The medium is the message, and trying to overpower others verbally is a poor medium, and only corrupts your message.

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I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.