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Interrupting for Better Results

Has something like this ever happened with you?

I was at a casual coffee meeting a dozen people for the first time, having a lovely conversation with a health tech professional, when… ‘Hello, I’m [Insert Name]. I work in [Insert Industry],’ a new person handed me their card and sat next to me while continuing to speak to me.

Noticing my discomfort and their persistence, I said ‘hold on’, and quickly closed with my first conversation partner.

Later, while entertained in conversation with a biotech-financer… ‘Hey, I’m heading out.’ Someone familiar in the group came over for a one-to-one goodbye, and I found myself abruptly redirected back to the group, where everyone seemed already occupied in one-to-one or one-to-two conversations.

Accepting the nature of networking here, I listened for a moment, then inserted myself into one of these conversations.

Are moments like this normal for you? Normal and comfortable? Normal and uncomfortable? Not normal?

There’s no right or wrong answer. Just notice what’s true for you.

These moments were uncomfortable for me, yet nobody complained (as far as I could tell). Interruptions seemed accepted as part of the art of networking: a great way to connect with the ‘right’ people for us is to explore many connections, requiring us to repeatedly connect, disconnect, and connect with someone new.

Trust that we will reconnect with the right people.

Knock knock…

So why the discomfort, and how to grow out of it?

When I grew up, I was taught that interrupting while someone was speaking was anything but acceptable – rude, impolite, disobedient, disrespectful, even punishable at times. It could cost friends, respect, activities, dinner.

Fast forward to now, working as a coach and facilitator, recent feedback from trainers and mentor agree, I need to interrupt more. Yes, they believe that in many instances, I need to intentionally interject while someone else is talking to improve my service.

What does that mean for coaching? My supervisors, who score my coaching skills while listening to recorded sessions of me coaching a client on a real problem, tell me that I let the client talk too much. What’s wrong with letting someone wander in thought exploring multiple angles of the problem, possibly philosophizing, reaching into the past, reaching into the future, etc?

It's not necessarily wrong, but my job as the coach is to help the client find that bullseye on which to focus their efforts. The exact location of that bullseye is not yet clear, though it is somewhere within the concentric circles we are already exploring.

Letting the client wander a round too long is like letting them explore the edge of the circle they’re in, while a few pointed questions can help them focus in on some possibilities.

Same story in facilitation. I facilitate a weekly planning meeting for an organization I care about. Our style of operating differs from traditional ‘vertical’ management systems and “allows the individual to express himself/herself within a group, and allows the group to function in an autonomous and co-responsible manner.”

In our meetings, this goal is achieved using a specific structure and guidelines about who can speak about what and when.

The facilitator protects this structure, and that means cutting off and calling out contributions happening at the wrong time and/or for the wrong purpose.

If you’re programmed like me, this can feel abrupt and uncomfortable. Often, I withhold reacting, listening longer or waiting for someone to finish their sentence, giving myself more time to evaluate and appreciate the intentions of the speaker.

But again, my priority as a facilitator is to help the group find that bullseye, and experiences show that the group can do that when the facilitator protects the space and time for the right contributions to come out for the right purpose.

Sights, sounds, and location for HK road crossings

Interrupting is easy for some people. What makes it hard for others?

Like crossing the road, the action itself is not hard to do.

To cross the road, put one foot in front of the other in the direction crossing the road.

To interrupt, speak before someone stops talking.

The action is simple, our practice and perception of it can make it hard.

Crossing a typical city-center road in Hong Kong involves waiting at designated zebra-striped crosswalks, watching the lights on a sign change from a red standing person to a green walking person, and/or listening for the clicks to change from ‘click…click…click…’ to ‘clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik clik”. Then you can walk across the crosswalk in front of all the motor traffic obeying their red light. It generally works any time of day, rush hour included.

Crossing a typical city-center road at a crowded time in Mumbai, India or Hanoi, Vietnam, or Amman Jordan, however, feels completely different. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, all share a road with ad hoc lanes and flow like a stream, like rainstorm runoff ceaselessly carving its path through the sand towards the ocean.

Crossing the road in this situation means never expecting the flow to stop. Instead, you insert your body into it and somehow make your way perpendicularly through the flow of motorized vehicles. Step-by-step, alert and trusting that oncoming drivers see you and change their course just enough to not hit you and to stay with the flow of traffic, you walk across the road on an opportunist path presented by each passing vehicle. The motor traffic will never stop. If you want to be on the other side of the road within your desired time frame, you must go through it.

Our practice with different road crossing situations will shape our first perceptions at a new crossing.

Those used to meandering through a constant flow comprising 3-5 types of motor vehicles may resist obeying all the pedestrian crossing signals of Hong Kong, even risking the penalties of recent undercover jaywalking stings.

Those used to receiving and following clear signals could find their heart rate doubling after surviving a rush-hour city-center crossing in Hanoi.

Image credit: shivaphotographyy via Likely Hyderabad, India based on a quick search of the Asian Spine Hospital

3P’s to increasing likelihood and ease

Knowing we need to do something we typically find uncomfortable, how can we make it easier for ourselves?

Practice, perspective, and purpose influence our likelihood or ease for completing a certain action.

Crossing the road is rarely the end goal, it is the next best step to the purpose of going where we want to go.

To offer another perspective on interruption, it is rarely a goal but often the next best step to getting an interaction where it needs to go.

Done skillfully and with stated purpose, it can help a client progress faster, help a group make a better decision sooner, or achieving the goal of making more connections sooner.

Like crossing a road, helpful interruptions overcome a divide between where we are and where we want to go instead of joining traffic flow in an unintended direction.

Over to you!

Recall a situation involving interruption. Perhaps you were interrupted, or perhaps you interrupted, or perhaps you thought about interrupting but didn’t!

What are the thoughts and feelings that come up as you recall that interruption (that did or didn’t happen)?

What was the purpose of that interruption?

What was the outcome?

What are you learning and how will you apply it?

Image credit: shivaphotographyy via Likely Hyderabad, India based on a quick search of the Asian Spine Hospital