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A No Interruption Rule? Really?

I was raised in a large extended family and have vivid and fond memories of holiday dinners around a crowded large dining room table. At the table the conversation was always robust, with many differing opinions. Not only did the relatives have differing opinions about almost everything, they were anxious to share them with the whole table. With everyone sharing opinions and some folks talking concurrently, the resulting cacophony was energizing and somewhat (truth be told) amusing.

It struck me that those speaking were passionate about their views and that passion led them to wanting to share their perspectives. In addition they were positive their view was the most logical and right. And they were ready to convince the assembled mass of the righteousness of their view (and by implication the foolishness of other views).

As I moved from the family table to the workplace, I noted a similar phenomenon in meetings. People would come to meetings passionate about an issue, assured of the correctness of their view. Hence, they fully expected they would convince others if the other team members would just listen.

Much like my family dinners, people would interrupt each other to share their perspective. People would shamelessly speak over each other leaving the room electric (which is better than the low energy of some meetings). However, little problem solving occurred as everyone was striving to be heard.

We all know we should be good listeners; interrupting indicates a lack of active listening. Someone who is interrupting is clearly thinking of what they want to say rather than trying to understand what a team member is saying. The speaking team member should be allowed to finish her thoughts for at least two reasons:

First, it is important to hear all of what the speaker is saying. It is often at the end of a statement that the nuance is shared. If the speaker cannot get to the end of the statement that nuance is lost. Second, interrupting someone indicates that you think what you have to say is more important than what the speaker is saying. That attitude is bound to disempower the speaker. If everyone is being interrupted, the team is devaluing itself.

It is also significant to note that often the people who interrupt come from traditionally powerful groups. For diversity on a team to be as powerful as it should, it is critical that every member of that team be heard completely. The team should take note to make space for women and people of color to speak and be heard at every meeting.

In order to ensure everyone was heard, in my last years as a leader, I instituted the rule that no one could speak until the person speaking was done talking. Enforcing that rule (which ironically meant I had to interrupt the interrupter) was harder than you would expect. Well-meaning team members would be so energized by the conversation that they would jump while another team member was speaking. However, eventually, waiting for the other speaker to finish became the norm. At that point, two interesting things happened at our meetings. First, the meetings were calmer, less frenetic. When people knew they would be heard, they could slow down and more clearly articulate their thoughts.

Second, when people had the opportunity to articulate their thoughts clearly, what they said was more relevant and apt. Further the debate was more robust as everyone was listening and taking time to develop their thoughts to share. The decisions we reached were higher quality.

The work of not interrupting is worth it.


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