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Since 1st March, 1999
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Talking out of turn

A reader writes: “What do you do about a constant interrupter? I’ve run into this situation in meetings and conference calls. I can’t really say if the interrupter is being rude or just antsy. I find it to be extremely irritating, and it throws off my concentration, especially if I’m giving a presentation. Likewise, what do I do if someone’s whispering out of turn when I’m talking? Do I call her out on it? Ignore it?”

The response: Let me put aside for a moment the problem of deliberately disruptive people, who, in my experience, are rare. People usually interject when they have legitimate questions or comments that, for some reason, they feel cannot wait. You, the speaker, might question the need for the interruption, and the manner in which the person speaks up might seem inopportune. However, if you can look beyond the irritation of having your train of thought disrupted, you might find that the person raises important points or that their commentary provides you with a helpful reminder of, or transition to, something that you wanted to say.

Likewise, when someone is carrying on a hushed conversation during a meeting, he or she is often discussing the very topic of the meeting. Such people feel a need to vocalise something they are thinking, but they either don’t believe that the rest of the group would be interested, or they are timid about speaking up. And, even though side conversations can be just as distracting as outright interruptions, persons who whisper while you are talking might actually believe that they are being polite by not addressing themselves directly to you.

So, how should you deal with these behaviours? When someone interrupts, let him or her finish. Then, do your best to synthesise the question or comment, respond concisely, and return to what you were saying. If you do not know the answer, say so. If discussion of the subject would not add value to your meeting or if you are on a tight schedule, offer to address the question or comment one-on-one when the meeting is over.

When someone whispers during your meeting or presentation, make eye contact and ask the person whether he or she has a question for you. The answer might be yes, in which case the person will contribute to the discussion. Or the answer could be no, in which case he or she will probably become self-conscious and stop whispering.

But what if you believe that the person interrupting is just being rude? Most people cannot stand to witness deliberately boorish behaviour, so someone in the group will usually reprimand the heckler for you. If nobody comes to your rescue, you can also control hecklers by using humour (“OK, Karen, that right there was your last question.”) or using the time card (“Sorry, but we’re short on time, so I’m going to have to ask that you reserve your questions for the end of the presentation.”). I once gave a legal compliance presentation in which one of the attendees — we’ll call him Steve — started arguing with me regarding nearly every legal principle. I made it through the materials despite Steve’s forceful interruptions by essentially making him the butt of all jokes. It was a risky move, but it worked because it satisfied Steve’s desire to be the centre of attention while at the same time taking the sting out of his comments.

If someone is whispering while you are talking and you are quite sure that the person is discussing lunch plans rather than the third bullet on your PowerPoint slide, stop talking. It will not be long before the person realises that his or hers is the only audible voice in the room, and then he or she will stop out of sheer embarrassment.

Who hasn’t been guilty of interrupting what someone else is saying, or of whispering to a friend during a meeting? It can be unnerving to be on the receiving end of these behaviours. However, they are usually a sign of engagement in the subject matter and, properly handled, can add depth and dimension to the conversation.

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