When you’re pitching your business to the CEO of a multinational corporation, you often have no more than 10 minutes to state your case. That’s why when I’m telling them about my corporate training firm Balancing Life’s Issues, I have my presentation timed down to the second.
Right in the middle of my pitch, the CEO asks a question. I quickly answer it and return to the point I was making. Then there’s another question, and another.
“Let me interrupt you for a moment,” I say to them, cutting them off in mid-sentence. “I think what I’m going to tell you will answer your questions.”
I wasn’t always this straightforward. Like the rest of us, I was taught that interrupting someone is rude or disrespectful. Even if someone has just interrupted you — like that CEO did to me — the worst thing you can do is interrupt them.
But I’m here to tell you, it’s just not true.
Interruptions have an important function in modern interactions. They save time by limiting unimportant tangents and allow us to come to a clear and concise conclusion in what otherwise might be a roundabout conversation. If I didn’t get in the habit of interrupting CEOs, I would never have the opportunity to show them what I am capable of.
Have I ever gotten into trouble for interrupting? Of course I have. More times than I can count. Did I regret it or immediately begin apologizing? No, because it wasn’t a mistake and I didn’t do anything wrong. Most of the time it was the only way to deal with the situation.
When I was launching my own business 28 years ago, I wasn’t always as careful with my time as I could have been. But I learned that cutting short an unproductive conversation is a necessity if you’re going to get anything done. It’s about being productive, effective, and efficient.
(If you want to see a world-class interrupter in action, check out Rep. Maxine Water on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. When the Secretary of the Treasury evades her questions, she cuts him off with a businesslike announcement that she is “reclaiming my time.”)
Interrupting is not just saving myself time, either. If someone on my staff asks to speak with me and I have a pretty good idea that they’re going to ask me for a raise, I will probably interrupt them to say that I can’t give them what they’re asking for at the moment. We can then schedule a time to talk when salary is the only thing on the agenda.
As I wrote in a recent article about the positive aspects of being aggressive, we shouldn’t be afraid to add tools to our toolbox because some people might see them as intimidating. What others call aggression we can choose to see as being “relentlessly passionate.” There’s no reason not to reframe the ability to interrupt others in the same way.
I find the same skills serve me well in my personal life. If one of my children wants to ask me something and I can’t give them my full attention at that moment, I interrupt them and ask if we can do it another time. That way I can be in the right headspace for the conversation.
I remember a parent-teacher conference at school when the conversation kept drifting to the school year and more general topics. We just had 25 minutes to discuss my daughter, so I didn’t feel awkward interrupting the teacher and asking if we could get back to her progress at school.
In fact, I’ve felt more uncomfortable when I didn’t cut someone off. For example, I wish my friend hadn’t told me about her husband’s politics. I should have stopped her in the middle of the conversation to let her know I didn’t need to know his stances on the issues. Now I can’t unknow them, and it affects how I think about both of them.
I’m an extrovert, so taking the lead in a conversation isn’t hard for me. But it’s a skill that introverts can learn as well. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Gia Storms encourages all people — introverts and extroverts alike — to practice how to interrupt in a constructive way.
At first speaking up might feel a little out of character for you, but the more you do, the more comfortable you’ll feel. It’s all about “authentic conversation,” and once you master it, you won’t want to hold yourself back any longer.