Courtesy, Rudeness, Meetings, and Teamwork

Readers, can you help us solve a problem???


I received this email from Betty:

“John, the 10 questions for better communication in your blog titled Why don’t THEY communicate better? is Just More Blame really helped me. They also made me reflect on a communication problem we’re having: People who interrupt. Two team members in our department frequently interrupt colleagues during meetings, including the director, who is our boss.”

After reading the rest of Betty’s email (below), essentially describing four scenarios, I couldn’t resist titling them. So the headings are mine, while the descriptions are hers.

Let’s continue with her email:

1. Give Up, Give In: When interrupted, the original speaker immediately stops speaking and allows The Interrupter to have the floor. We never get back to the first person’s point unless someone says, “Joe, what were you saying?” and with a grateful look “Joe” begins to share again.

2. The Bulldozer Effect: Some people, when interrupted, feel compelled to keep talking, getting louder and louder. They then run right over The Interrupter to block them from taking over.

3. Accountability Shifting: The Interrupter starts talking over you—or jumps in when you take a breath—and as you continue, it begins to appear that you are the one interrupting the person who actually interrupted you when you hadn’t finished speaking yet!

4. Confusion and Chaos: When The Interrupter interrupts and the original speaker keeps talking, the room becomes divided. Some folks keep listening to the first speaker, some start listening to The Interrupter, while others look back and forth not knowing who to listen to!

I have confronted one co-worker on this behavior a couple times and the response I get always sounds like this:

“Ohhhhh, I know I do that … it is soooo bad of me. People have told me that before. I even do it to my family!”

Okay, I think, then how about changing!?!

John, I believe that this interruptive behavior is really hurting our team. At the very least, it is discourteous and rude.

What is to be done with people like this?


My return email to Betty focused on the director—the team’s leader—who should confront The Interrupters on their negative behavior. As we write about in the Outstanding! book, management “sets the tone.”

However, in the spirit of the QBQ! book and its message of PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY, Betty can’t change her boss. So, since most of our readers work on a team somewhere, this is the question:

What should Betty do?

Please share your recommendation below!

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27 Responses

  1. I worked with a team once who interrupted me so much that I couldn’t get a complete thought out before someone was talking over me. I brought a stress ball in. To speak, you had to have the ball. Next person would call for the ball and we’d toss it to them (or for the more challenged catchers, roll it across the table) when we were done with our thought. Seriously! It worked and it was fun!

    1. Love the thought – do you throw it at the interrupter? I was thinking a bell which you would ring to interrupt the interrupter.

  2. Try setting ground rules at the beginning of a meeting or working session. For example “Today, the agenda of this meeting is such and such. We have an hour to achieve this. Let’s make sure we are making the most of our time by respecting who has the floor, actively listening, and responding in an orderly manner.”

  3. One solution would be to give her director a copy of QBQ. Or depending on her level in the company send out an invite to a discussion on office etiquette or standard meeting rules

  4. I learned recently at training seminar that you can interrupt an extravert, but not an introvert. An extravert will pick up the conversation right where they left off, but an introvert is done.

  5. I am guilty of being the person that interupts. Once I realized I was “one of those people” and realized it was about me as much as anyone, I made a change. I asked what can I do, how can I help. If I realize I am interupting, I apologize and make a note of what I need to say and wait my turn. I have gone as far as to ask my co workers to help me with it. If I interupt, “hold that thought” or even a side glance and I will apologize and wait my turn. It hasn’t been easy but I have become more aware of when I am about to interupt and stop there!

  6. I had this happen to me once where one of my customers told me “excuse me, I thought I was talking”; I was totally embarrassed, never thought I did that, left the account and followed up with an apology by phone.
    Am trying to be more aware of that going forward.
    It is frustrating we hear this a lot on news radio – people talking over each other, very confusing!
    I like the stress ball idea.

  7. Start each meeting with ground rules that are written on a flip chart or whiteboard. Such things as:
    Start and End time for the meeting (and adhere to these times)
    State the purpose of the meeting
    The speaker has the floor until he/she relinquishes it
    No side bar conversations
    Document questions that arise for further investigation (prevents endless, time-wasting, circular discussions)
    Schedule a follow-up meeting to report on questions that can’t be answered during the current meeting
    Share information honestly and factually

  8. I am a new manager and have one team member who is an interrupter. I like the stress ball idea and setting ground rules. thanks for bringing up this topic.

  9. Unfortunately there is not much more that Betty can do in her situation. When the offender is confronted and responds “Ohhhhh, I know I do that … it is soooo bad of me. People have told me that before. I even do it to my family!”…they obviously know they have the problem and for whatever reason have chosen to NOT modify the bahavior. One could assume that the behavior is actually a power tactic to maintain the upper hand in all conversations and reduce or eliminate any counter proposals or discussions.

  10. Would it help to discuss the cost of interrupting? After acknowledging that it’s an issue for the team, you could ask each person to write their answer to: “What is one way that interrupting can negatively impact our team?”

    Then, have people share their answers. I would expect answers like:
    – People may feel undervalued
    – Interrupters end up driving most decisions
    – Lack of focus as a team

    After discussing the costs of interrupting, maybe you could brainstorm how to deal with the challenge:
    – If I’m an interrupter, I can make notes so I can bring my idea up when it’s appropriate
    – If I’m interrupted, I can politely call attention to it. Maybe a code word or visual signal could help, like making the “Time Out” sign to indicate “Hey I wasn’t done yet!”
    – The stress ball idea is definitely a good one!

  11. I think that Betty should allow the Interrupter to have the floor, then raise her hand as if to ask a question. When the meeting leader allows Betty permission to speak, just ask the question, “Is there any way we could hold all discussion and questions until the end of the meeting, and then address our concerns-that way I’ll be able to have better comprehension of the key points?” This will let the interrupter know in a polite fashion that interruptions are disconcerting, and not conducive to the learning environment, and they are not appreciated by his/her team-mates.
    Betty may also just suggest to the meeting leader, to have an agenda for each meeting w/ a heading that reads-All questions/Concerns will be addressed in the last 15 minutes of the meeting. Please hold all questions until then.

  12. A few things that can help. In face to face meeting I will sometimes introduce the concept of “virtual microphone.” I’ll start by holding it up as first speaker. Only one person can have it at time and need to take turns. When there is an interruption, someone in the group will usually remind others the speaker “has the mike.”

    Another is wait for the interrupter to pause and ask “are you finished?” And if they do it again refer back to their statement that they were finished.

  13. If managing this person discuss their disruptive behavior. If continues then place them on a Performance Improvement Plan. If not managing, and they aren’t contributing to the meeting in a positive way discontinue inviting.

  14. There is no reason that Betty cannot take a leadership role in this situation. All she needs to do is be supportive of the original speaker. When someone interrups, she can simply say, “excuse me, but Joe was still speaking and I’d like to hear what he has to say.” Just because you aren’t the director, doesn’t mean you can’t lead/influence the team from your role.

  15. I agree with Craig statement, “When someone interrups, she can simply say, “excuse me, but Joe was still speaking and I’d like to hear what he has to say.” Just because you aren’t the director, doesn’t mean you can’t lead/influence the team from your role.”
    We may not be able to change others but we can help them understand civility.

  16. Agree with Craig and Randy that this is a great opportunity for Betty to step up her leadership.
    I believe that her confrontation with co-worker 1 gave her the ability to interrupt co-1 with a “Hi Bob, hold that thought, let Marcia finish” and that sideways glance that Bridget mentioned. Betty might have a similar conversation with C–worker 2, with a similar result.
    Secondly, she can go to her manager and let them know that 1) she’s noticed the interruptions, 2) point out the costs of interruptions (thanks Eva!) and 3) suggest that they establish some ground rules for meeting engagement such as GWW listed.
    If nothing else, it highlights her leadership and gives her the chance to develop non-aggressive assertiveness, not an easy thing!

  17. Similar to some of the earlier comments, I generally I play the facilitator and respond this way when it happens… “Bob, I know what you have to say is important but please, let’s let Joe finish his thoughts and we will come right back to you once he’s done” I also have a meeting code of conduct posted so the facilitator’s interruption comes as no surprise

  18. I have been listening to the QBQ audio book the last two weeks on my way to and from work. I have been listening to the QBQ. . . get it? This challenge brings to mind the chapter about “you can’t change people.” To point, when the co-worker was challenged, she had been told by family and still hasn’t changed. So why not take a hint from the way John crafted this Quicknote and break the meeting into topics. The “Boss” can explain that he will address the topic, then open the floor to discussion. He could address the interupter(s) with challenge QBQ “how would you handle X?” At some point, he has to be the Boss and move to the next topic, whether it be with a ball or a virtual mic.

  19. I think Betty should have a discussion with her Supervisor and/or the Director, voicing her concern about the negative impact of the disruptions on team productivity. Betty should, of course, be prepared to offer corrective solutions, if asked.

  20. I confess I can be an interruptor and have worked hard to overcome it but in some individuals, impulsivity goes with the territory. I have to say that my peers have been my greatest allies in trying to deal with it and therefore, I encourage respectful honesty between co-workers. It IS rude to interrupt and sometimes it IS about control issues but to assume there is malicious intent does not help because it may be more about misdirected enthusiasm than mischief. I would assume the interruptor is unaware, confront it respectfully and set up a system to help raise awareness of it. People need to be able to talk to each other directly (and BEFORE tempers flare). If that doesn’t help, involving the manager may be necessary. The suggestions (stress ball, virtual microphone, Rules of the Road) have all been great!

  21. I’ve observed a couple of effective ways an interrupter can be handled. One addresses #4, Confusion and Chaos scenario…either the person running the meeting or someone else in the room will say “one meeting please”. This usually stops the sidebar conversations (an unfortunate outcome of interruptions) and gets back to the topic and the person speaking. The other is specific to the person originally talking and the interrupter…what I usually do in this case is look directly at the interrupter and politely say “let me finish please”. If I am not the one speaking and observe that the original speaker is uncomfortable, I’ll wait until the interrupter takes a breath then direct the conversation back to the speaker saying something like “Alice, please finish your thought” and then to the room, “let’s let Alice finish then we can discuss.” This direct approach is usually necessary as the interrupters are persistent and relatively aggressive. I don’t think they mean to be but the message they send is that what they have to say is more important than the person speaking.

  22. Snarky comebacks are generally not advisable, but I smile when I hear someone say, “Sorry to talk while you were interrupting.”
    There is another form of interruption, and that is the aborted interruption: someone purposefully begins to interrupt and then stops after a few words to signal to the speaker to hurry up because they want the floor, it can be equally rude. (I’m guilty of this tactic)
    * As someone who teaches meeting productivity, I like Craig’s advice for Betty to step up. One way to do this is to help the person reflect on how his/her actions are impacting their professional image. Those who interrupt are generally considered rude and bullish.
    * The meeting facilitator also has the responsibility to help regulate conversations. One or two public, “Excuse me, Bob, could Sue please finish her thoughts.” usually quiets folks down. The group will quickly understand that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. People do what the perceive they are allowed to do.
    * Robert’s Rules are an excellent example of ground rules that help regulate a meeting. Rules only work if they are consistently enforced.
    In the end, it is probably a mixture of all of these and a willing and humble heart that cares enough to change.

  23. This happens on a regular basis in my organization. It is as if there are two sets of rules. One for us “regular” folks and one for the “execs.” I suggest Mary speak with the director and let them know her concerns and a solution. For example, ask for a facilitator or put herself into the role of facilitator during the meeting. She can ask the interrupter to please wait until the speaker is done, ask the speaker to wrap it up if they go long winded, etc.
    This is very frustrated but to keep with the QBQ way, you can only be responsible for yourself and ask how you can help. Don’t blame!

  24. Betty should leave the meeting if interrupted more than 3 times and if the interruptions did not add any positive content to the discussion she could use her time more productively than participating in a useless casual chatting than achieving any productive results,she should then let the team know the reasons about her actions.As an individual she can only do what is in her control!

  25. I thought about a workshop of sorts. It is very hard to monitor and enforce rules on cummunication as there are so many variables. To improve the flow of conversations and save the feelings of teammates the direction of self accountability could take us to a fun filled workshop. There could be role playing activities etc. If I was incharge of implimenting change I would call in a communications specialist. The way we communicate today is very different than they way we did 30 years ago. It is not surprising that these challenges are arising in the workplace.

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