Knock knockWho’s there? The interrupting cow The interrupting cow-- “MOOOOOOOO” --who?
As an off-the-chart extrovert, I’m guilty of being a dreaded interrupter. Sigh. It’s so embarrassing and, at age 47, I really shouldn’t commit this sin so often. My self-consolation is that when it happens, I try to stop myself as soon as possible, apologize, and make sure the other party has a chance to finish the original thought. Another consolation is that I’m in good company. According to one research project by linguist Adrienne Hancock, on average 1.8 - 2.9 interruptions occurred during a three-minute conversation. While Hancock’s research focused on gender differences, I’d like to just focus on the interruptions, specifically during a difficult conversation.
I continue to be impressed at people’s resistance to even have a difficult conversation. Susan, a client, told me she noticed she hadn’t heard from a good friend for a few days. She called a couple of times but got no reply. She texted; still no reply. A few more days went by and Susan tried again, but still no reply. After trying that many times with no reply, Susan told me she had decided not to try again and no one would blame her. But after a few days, Susan caved and reached out by text one more time, still in the dark about what was wrong. This time, she got a reply that said, “I’m so glad you texted. I’ve wanted to talk to you, but just didn’t know how.” My heart breaks for someone like this who is so scared of a difficult conversation that she can’t even text a good friend when something is wrong. If Susan hadn’t been persistent about reaching out past what was reasonable, that relationship probably would have ended. The moral of this story is that people really have trouble talking to each other during conflict and it takes almost nothing for people to head to the caves of silence because they are afraid of what might happen. We all know it’s easier to avoid someone than to actually talk to them.
If you are lucky enough to get to have the conversation, interruptions are going to shut things down pretty quickly, considering someone’s intense reluctance to talk with you. In every conversation there are at least two levels of content: the first is informational, and the second is relational. Every message is accompanied by information about the relationship. Interruptions convey a pretty strong message that “I am more important than you; I have the power.”
Now, all interruptions are not so negatively premeditated. Some people interrupt as an impulse because they are out-loud thinkers. Some are “helping” tell the story. I often see this between close friends or couples, generally accompanied by a good bit of irritation from the “helped.” Just last week, I conducted a listening training session. With about 30 people in the room, I had to reign in the interrupting multiple times before chaos took over the room induced by all the helping. Still others just have a slower or quicker pace of speaking that is highly affected by culture that dictates turn-taking norms. Gender and power are in the mix as well.
However, if you are in a difficult conversation with someone from your church family, defenses and tensions will naturally be high. Bring in the fact that we have this flawed win/lose mentality during a conflict and interruptions can turn from a simple bad habit to hand grenades, exploding the conversation to a violent level when someone hears this message, “I am more important than you; I have the power; I have to be the winner.” What people need to hear is, “You are important to me, and I want to understand and desperately want to preserve this relationship.” Being disciplined about interrupting will go a long way to communicating this message. As usual, this is harder, takes longer and is exactly what is required of us as mature believers. “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).