Can’t Get a Word in Edgewise? How to Short Circuit the Serial Interrupter.

A negotiation or mediation should have a flow or rhythm. Ideally both parties are actively listening to each other and expressing themselves in an effective and professional manner. Although each side is trying to get the most benefit from an agreement, both sides understand any agreement is a two-way street where they both have to have their needs met.

If one party or both are interrupting each other, there is no flow or rhythm and frustration and anger can mount, making agreement difficult if not impossible.

Why would one party interrupt the other?

  • The person wants to dominate the conversation and show he or she has power. The person wants to actively steer the conversation where he or she wants it to go, not where the speaker wants it to go, and take charge of the situation.
  • The speaker isn’t giving a coherent, to the point message and verbally “wandering,” making people feel like time is being wasted. The interrupter may get involved out of frustration and want discussions to move along faster.
  • It’s just how the interrupter communicates. It may not be based on bad motives. Perhaps this is how the person’s family talks to each other. He or she may have grown up hearing his or her parents speak this way.
  • It may be cultural. In a study, Japanese participants (whose culture is more focused on collective agreement and action than American culture) tended to change their normal, cooperative style to a more intrusive North American style when they spoke English with Americans (such as interrupting to ask for clarification) according to the Harvard Business Review. The number of intrusive interruptions was higher when conversations between Japanese and American participants were done in English than in conversations between two Japanese participants in Japanese.

Be aware of your communication style. If being interrupted bothers you, the problem might be that you’re not getting to the point effectively and in a timely manner. Each side in a negotiation or mediation has a story to tell. Make sure the story you’re telling isn’t War and Peace.

If it’s the interrupter who’s causing problems you could,

  • Before you start speaking, give a short preview of what you plan to say and lay out some ground rules. Let the other party know you have several things to discuss and you’ll be happy to answer questions or address concerns when you’re done.
  • Hear the interrupter out, then ask questions to explore whatever issues the person might have. You may learn something important and with the other party having an opportunity to state their position, you may be able to avoid other interruptions.
  • Stop talking and dramatize the problem to make a point, in a nice way. Instead of accusing the other person of being unhelpful, demonstrate the fact he or she is being unhelpful. Offer to share the floor, then perhaps ask permission to continue speaking.

If your case is being mediated you will also have the benefit of the mediator laying out ground rules, including the parties respecting each other and acting professionally.