Interruptions. They are the adult version of a kid snatching a toy away from someone else. And yet it continues to happen. People steal conversational turns. All the time.

Communication expert Deborah Tannen begins her chapter called Turn-Taking and Intercultural Discourse and Communication like this:

“When people engage in conversation, they take turns speaking. This seems at first a self-evidently simple matter: one talks, then another talks, then another. But how do speakers know when their turn at talk has come? How do they accomplish the exchange of turns? For what reasons and in what ways do speakers take turns that others believe they are not entitled to?”

As Tannen asserts, and as I’m learning, not all interruptions are created equal. Sure, there are those moments when an interruption is forceful way of silencing someone else and taking the floor for yourself. But that’s not always the case.

Han Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, has created different categories of interruptions, some of which are cooperative and others which are intrusive. Her research can give us better insight into what is happening when we take turns talking.

Cooperative Interruptions

Li says that some interruptions can be positive. They actually add to the communication rather than detract from it. These types can also promote positive interactions and feelings between the communicators rather than promoting negative ones.

Agreement: the interrupter shows support for the speaker or his/her ideas and elaborates on the communication. This is the type of positive and energetic communication you see happening in group brainstorming. Given this kind of context, interruptions are viewed as natural and even necessary because they build on ideas or voice approval.

Assistance: the interrupter helps by providing a word or phrase for which the speaker was searching. If you’ve ever been in front of an audience grasping at straws for a word, you know how helpful it can be when someone shouts out the word you are looking for.

Clarification: the interrupter aids the in communication by asking for explanation, further clarification, or the repeating of something the speaker said. If something doesn’t make sense or didn’t come across clearly, it helps for someone to stop the speaker and let him know. That gives him a chance to clarify and minimize confusion before moving on.

Intrusive Interruptions

Aside from positive interruptions, there are the types of interruptions that we know to be negative and disruptive. These types of interruptions break down the communication. They can make you appear insensitive or aggressive which can damage your credibility. They can also decrease understanding and harm the relationship between the communicators.

Disagreement: the interrupter jumps in to voice a different opinion. Disagreement is a natural part of communication. But it must be handled carefully. It’s okay to disagree with the speaker and even to say so, but it’s not okay to silence a speaker just because you disagree. Responsible communication can only happen when we give time, attention, and respect to all ideas and people.

Floor taking: the interrupter continues the conversation on the subject but rather than waiting for his/her natural turn, takes the attention away from someone else. This is the classic definition of interrupting. It is speaking over someone else. But when someone interrupts, it sends the message that he believes what he has to say is more important.

Topic change: the interrupter switches topics before the speaker was finished talking. Sometimes people jump in to change the topic if they are bored or uncomfortable. This can be an especially aggressive way of minimizing someone else’s voice or ideas.

Summarization: the interrupter paraphrases the speaker’s point in a way that is minimizing. While paraphrasing can be a helpful tactic, in this sense, the interrupter uses it to communicate that he can express the speaker’s own ideas better or more succinctly. Ouch!

Interrupting for the Right Reasons

If someone else is talking and you catch yourself opening your mouth to interrupt, stop and think first about Li’s types of interruptions. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is what I’m about to say going to add to or detract from the communication?
  • Will interrupting boost my credibility as a communicator, or damage it?
  • How will my interruption affect my relationship with the person speaking and with anyone else who is listening?
  • Is the interruption worth the risk?

The way that you communicate speaks volumes about who you are. Learning how and how not to interrupt and take turns is an important part of that.

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