Polite conversation is a wonderful way to get to know people, express opinions, and exchange ideas. But the chat goes flat real fast when one side interrupts before you finish speaking.
Like a plump pumpkin, this year’s holidays will be ripe for discord as far-flung family members, know-it-all neighbors, and garrulous grandchildren gather in dining (and Zoom) rooms worldwide. As cocktails flow and tempers flare, we may find ourselves caught in the cacophony.
Interruptive behavior is about control — either hogging or losing it. Some people are intentionally rude. Others simply lack the ability to self-censor. If you know ahead of time you’re dealing with a person who interrupts, you can plan ways to keep your discourse on course.
Diane Gottsman is an Austin-based national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. She shared some favorite recipes, if you will, for keeping conversation sweet, savory, and mutually satisfying.
Keep Calm and Carry Earplugs
“The reality is that everyone interrupts at one time or another,” Gottsman said.
She suggests you handle the first interruption by warmly noting, “Thanks for sharing your story. To get back to the point I was making…”
The second time it happens, she favors a stronger rebuke: “May I finish my thoughts before we get off track again?”
When you let the other person know you’re aware of their behavior, whether it is innocent or intentional, you also eliminate your own stress.
The bottom line?
“You have to decide if the conversation with this person is of value,” Gottsman said, “or simply a useless attempt to convey a message they aren’t interested in hearing and processing.”
Table the Topic
If the other person grows too emotionally charged and incessantly interrupts, try diverting the discussion to more neutral ground: “Sorry we got off to the wrong start. Let’s redirect.”
Gottsman says a good guest always comes prepared with several conversation starters. Redirect the conversation to something less charged, like someone’s past trip or recent success.
Try Your Hand
But what if you can’t stop the rant any other way?
“Use the hands,” Gottsman said.
This is not a confrontational close-fisted gesture. Instead, it’s an attempt to get the speaker’s attention.
Gottsman encourages raising the hand palm out with fingers slightly separated showing the number five. Pause, look directly at the interrupter, and firmly say, “Please let me finish.”
If they continue to ramble, it’s time to verbally and physically disengage until they have stopped.
And, if they still are not willing to respectfully listen, it’s perfectly fine to remove yourself from the conversation. Time to go taste Grandma’s prize-winning pecan pie.
This season, you can relish all your conversations armed with a proven plan of attack. So, when that opinionated uncle says, “Let’s talk turkey,” you’ll be less likely to throw the potatoes and more likely to mind your own peas and cues.