Not a conversation
We all have that coworker–let’s call him Chet–who insists on turning every presentation into a discussion. A discussion dominated by Chet’s own questions and comments. Instead of listening attentively to your carefully planned slides, the rest of the room is rolling their eyes and tapping their fingers in impatience.
How are you supposed to handle the Chets of the world constructively?
Harvard Business Review explains that first you need to understand why and when people are inclined to interrupting others.
Individualistic cultures, like those of the US, Germany and Australia, stress assertiveness and independence.
Meanwhile, collectivistic cultures such as China, Korea and Japan emphasize working as a group and putting community before the individual. How does this affect their conversation styles?
There’s a difference between chiming in to a conversation and throwing off the rhythm with an off-tempo comment.
Typically when someone from an individualistic culture interjects, it’s an intrusive interruption, focused on making a point and asserting a stance. In a collectivistic culture, interruptions are more cooperative, and used to exhibit loyalty–more of a “Yeah, you got it!” than a “Well actually, in my personal opinion…”.
In general, high-status people tend to express their opinions more often and dominate the conversation.
When some C-level exec stops you mid-sentence with “Excuse me, go back a slide”, you’re damn sure to go back a slide.
Whether you’re CEO of a large company or the team leader of a high school group project, it’s easier to speak up when you’re confident no one will dispute you.
So what can you do about it?
Acknowledge the person interrupting. You see Chet there, chomping at the bit waiting to throw in his opinions. Instead of waiting for him to interject and asking him to let you finish your statement, begin your story or presentation with an outline of what you’re going to say, and assure everyone that there will be plenty of time for questions afterwards. This may soothe Chet’s urge to blurt out whatever’s on his mind.
Address the interrupter privately. This shouldn’t be a harsh scolding, but more of a constructive discussion. Chet might not even be aware he’s interrupting. Maybe he considers his contributions cooperative rather than intrusive. Maybe no one’s ever said anything to him about it before.
Calmly tell Chet about the tendencies you’ve noticed and explain how it’s been a recurring issue that affects you and possibly others in the workplace.
Confronting him straight on will most likely get the message across and inspire Chet to change his ways.
Get the whole group in on it. If you think a direct confrontation might embarrass Chet, you can frame the issue in a general manner by addressing the whole group and not name-dropping anyone specific.
You could try asking the group to share what they consider effective communication, and what they could do themselves to achieve this.
This way, everyone acknowledges the issues within the group and they can all, including Chet, become more aware of their individual behaviors. It’s also a less stressful way to deal with interrupters of higher status than you.
Set the bar
If interrupting coworkers are a problem in your workplace, it’s best to nip them in the bud to set the bar for all future group discussions.
One day when Chet is the one presenting and he gets interrupted, he’ll know exactly how to handle it.