There are two kinds of interruptions. And like everything in life and relationships, the key is in our ability to discern the difference.
One of the questions we get a lot about living in New York is concerning how we deal with the crowds. All the people. The rude New Yorkers everywhere. It’s a legitimate question. We are interrupted all the time. Our speed of walking. Our desired focus. But are these good interruptions or bad ones?
Interruptions, just like everything else, can be invitations. But there is an obvious ugly side to interruptions and that needs to be acknowledged for us to make the best out of the opportunities.
The Bad Kind
We were at a meeting of students recently and everyone was talking over one another. We’ve been in church groups, leaders meetings, and spousal squabbles that have the same feel, to be fair. That night with the students, it was so hard to get traction with the topic we were there to discuss. As soon as someone was six words into something, a joke was made, a side-comment not so subtly whispered, or an outright interruption like a safety picking off a pass and running the other direction.
If you can be quiet enough to look for it, you’ll see that we interrupt each other all the time. It is pandemic. The natural result of our inability to listen well, we interrupt because we do not really value what others are saying. We kind of view communication as simply waiting for our turn to talk, our turn to try to impress others, our turn to seek validation for how funny or smart we are.
Obviously, we miss so much as a collective when we are always fighting for our own way. We literally talk over people. It is not just that we don’t truly hear what they are saying, we literally shut them down and don’t even give them a chance to get their thoughts out there. The message we send is clear – what you’re saying matters so little, I’m not even going to let you finish.
When we think about interruptions, we always place ourselves as the victim of the incident. It is such a travesty how people interrupt ME! But we are just as guilty as they are. We are them.It is so easy, and so justified, to feel shut down when someone interrupts you. The tendency, at least my tendency, is to give up on the person or community that interrupted me. I’ll say to myself, “fine, since what I have to say is so unimportant, I’ll just stay quiet.”
We’ve created a culture of passive-aggressive communication. We are all holding onto our own offenses and generally unaware of the small ways we hurt others.
I don’t think people who interrupt are trying to shut me down, generally speaking. My wife, who loves me more than anyone in the world sometimes interrupts me (and certainly the other way around). It doesn’t mean we hate each other or don’t value what they have to say in some final, eternal way. I just like my own way better. I am fighting for my own voice. And it is very hard to put other voices on equal footing.
We need a good dose of forgiveness in our communication with others. And a good dose of humility. Communication is a two-way street. And interruptions are an indication we are not doing it perfectly. But they are also an indication we are trying.
When someone interrupts you, it is not just an offense. It is an opportunity to hear what they have to say. Recently, I was at a group where I watched a woman try three times to start her story, getting interrupted a few words in each time. She closed her eyes (as if counting to ten) after the third time, but each time listened to what the others said with full attention. She eventually got to her story and it was even more valuable because she referenced some of the things others had said after interrupting her. The bad interruptions changed (and presumably enhanced) the story she was telling. I was blown away by her patience and quiet relentlessness to let her voice be heard without demanding it be heard.
We need to be careful and more aware of the ways we interrupt each other. We are shutting people down and cutting off value from our relationships. And when it happens to us, we need the patience, courage, and truth to proceed with grace.