The psychology of interrupting explained

At first glance, the psychology behind interrupting seems simple:

A speaker is saying something and is cut off by someone else who goes on to express their own thing, leaving the former embittered. But there’s much more to interruptions than that.

To begin, let’s talk about what constitutes an interruption.

An interruption in conversation occurs when a speaker cannot finish their sentence because they’re cut off by an interrupter who jumps in and begins their own sentence. The interrupted person is stopped in their tracks, and their voice trails off after the point of interruption.

For example:

Person A: I went to Disneyland [last week.]

Person B: [I love] Disneyland. It’s my favorite place to hang out with family.

In the above example, A is interrupted after saying “Disneyland”. A utters the phrase “last week” slowly to give room to B’s interruption. The terms “last week” and “I love” are spoken simultaneously, indicated by square brackets.

Speaking too quickly after the speaker finishes their sentence can also constitute an interruption. It communicates you were waiting for your turn to speak rather than listening and didn’t process what the speaker had to say.

There are usually three parties in an interruption:

  1. The interrupted
  2. The interrupter
  3. The audience (who observes them both)

Why do people interrupt?

There are a lot of reasons people interrupt. Researcher Julia A. Goldberg broadly classifies interruptions into three types:

  1. Power interruptions
  2. Rapport interruptions
  3. Neutral interruptions

Let’s go over these types of interruptions one by one:

1. Power interruptions

A power interruption is when the interrupter interrupts to gain power. The interrupter gains power by controlling the conversation. The audience perceives those who control the conversation more as more powerful.

Power interruptions are often deliberate attempts to appear superior to the audience. They’re common when a discussion or debate occurs publicly.

For example:

A: I don’t believe vaccines are dangerous. [Studies show..]

B: [They ARE!] Here, check out this video.

Speakers want to feel listened to and understood. When B interrupts A, A feels violated and disrespected. A feels what they have to say is not essential.

The audience sees A as someone who has no control over the conversation. Hence, A loses status and power.

Responding to power interruptions

When you’re interrupted by a power interruption, you’ll feel the need to re-assert your power and save face. But you have to do this tactfully.

The worst thing you can do is allow the interrupter to interrupt you. It communicates you don’t value what you have to say and yourself.

So, the strategy here is to let the interrupter know you don’t appreciate their interruption as soon as possible. Don’t let them make their point.

To do this, you have to interrupt the interrupter as soon as they interrupt you by saying something like:

“Please let me finish.”

“Wait a second.”

“Will you let me finish?” (more aggressive)

By re-asserting your power this way, you’re likely to make them feel powerless. Power in social interactions is rarely equally distributed. One party has more, the other less.

So, they’ll be motivated to get their power back to look good in front of the audience. This will create a cycle of power interruptions. This is the engine of heated debates and arguments.

If you want to fight, fight. But if you wish to re-assert your power subtly, you can do that by toning down how you let the interrupter know they interrupted you. You take your power back, but you don’t overpower them.

The best way to do this is to let them know they’re interrupting non-verbally. You could raise one hand, showing them your palm, indicating, “Please wait”. Or you could nod slightly to acknowledge their need to interrupt while conveying, “We’ll get to you later”.

Avoiding power interruptions

You want to avoid power interruptions in conversations because it makes the other party feel disrespected and violated.

It starts with self-awareness. Participate in conversations with a desire to listen and understand, not show superiority.

But we’re human, after all, and we slip from time to time. If you feel you power interrupted someone, you can always fix it by relinquishing your control of the conversation and giving it back to the speaker.

You can do this by saying something like:

“Sorry, you were saying?”

“Please continue.”

2. Rapport interruptions

These interruptions are benign and are designed to build rapport. They add to the conversation, not subtract from it as in power interruptions.

Rapport interruptions let the speaker know they’re being heard and understood. So, they have a positive effect.

For example:

A: I met Kim [yesterday].

B: [Kim?] Andy’s sister?

A: Yes, her. She’s good-looking, isn’t she?

Note that even though A was interrupted, they don’t feel disrespected. In fact, they feel heard and understood because B carried A’s conversation forward. Had B changed the topic or attacked A personally somehow, it would’ve been a power interruption.

A doesn’t feel the need to re-assert and continue their point because their point was well-taken.

Rapport interruptions bring natural flow to a conversation, and both parties feel heard. No one is trying to one-up the other.

The following clip is a good example of three people talking and rapport interrupting. Not one interruption seems like a power interruption to you- the audience- because the interruptions carry the conversation forward, imbuing it with flow:

Sometimes, however, rapport interruptions can be mistaken for power interruptions. You might be trying to connect with someone genuinely, and they’ll feel like you’re interrupting.

This usually happens when you respond to a part of the speaker’s sentence, but they had something good and exciting coming up later in their speech that you unintentionally blocked.

The point is: If they felt interrupted, they felt interrupted.

Chances are, they may not be self-aware enough to understand you were only trying to connect. In any case, you should give them the floor back if they feel interrupted.

If you believe you may have mistaken a rapport interruption for power interruption, do this:

Instead of demanding control of the conversation back, see how the interrupter acts after they’ve interrupted you.

If it’s a power interruption, they’ll try to take the floor all for themselves, leaving you behind with your unexpressed point. If it’s a rapport interruption, they’ll likely realize they interrupted and ask you to continue.

Also, it’s helpful to remember that rapport interruptions are more likely to occur in one-to-one interactions than power interruptions. There’s no audience to impress.

3. Neutral interruptions

These are interruptions that aren’t aimed to gain power, nor are they aimed to build a connection with the speaker.

Nonetheless, neutral interruptions can be misperceived as power interruptions.

Humans are hierarchical animals who care a lot about their status. So, we’re likely to misperceive rapport and neutral interruptions as power interruptions. Power interruptions are seldom misunderstood as connection or neutral interruptions.

Understanding this one point will take your social skills to the next level.

Reasons for neutral interruptions include:

a) Being excited/emotional

Humans are primarily creatures of emotion. While it seems ideal and civilized that one person should finish their point first and then the other person should speak, it rarely happens.

If people were to speak like that, it would seem robotic and unnatural.

When people interrupt, it’s often an emotional reaction to what they just heard. Emotions demand immediate expression and action. It’s difficult to pause them and wait for the other person to finish their point.

b) Communication styles

People have different communication styles. Some speak fast, some slow. Some perceive quick-moving conversations as interruptive; some see them as natural. A mismatch in communication styles leads to neutral interruptions.

A false start, for example, is when you interrupt someone because you think they had finished their thought but they hadn’t. It’s likely to happen when you’re talking to a slow speaker.

Also, people’s communication is heavily influenced by those around whom they learned to speak. Polite parents raise polite kids. Cursing parents raise cursing kids.

b) Attending to something more important

This happens when the interrupter re-directs attention to something more important than the ongoing conversation.

For example:

A: I saw this bizarre dream [last night..]

B: [Wait!] My mom is calling.

Even though A feels a tinge of disrespect, they’ll understand that attending your mother’s call is more important.

c) Mental health conditions

Those with Autism and ADHD are prone to interrupting others.

Pay attention to the nonverbals

A person’s true intention is often leaked in their nonverbal communication. If you pay attention to voice tone and facial expression, you can easily identify a power interruption.

Power interrupters often give you this ugly, condescending look when they’re interrupting.

Their voice tone will likely be sarcastic and volume, loud. They’ll avoid eye contact with you in the manner of “You’re beneath me. I can’t look at you.”

In contrast, rapport interrupters will interrupt you with proper eye contact, nodding, smile, and sometimes laughter.