Jill Geisler: Leaders need to master the art of strategic interruption
We know that clear, effective communication is an essential leadership skill. Your messages convey a vision for the team. They describe what success looks like. They rally the troops. They also can make or break someone’s day. That’s why it’s important to be thoughtful about your approach to communication ― like knowing when and how to speak up.
Match your communication to the situation
There are times to speak first. For example, when you want to set the tone and parameters for an important meeting, you might say:
“We’re here today with one focus. We’re going to find 5% savings in our operating budget without sacrificing quality or resorting to layoffs. I’d like you to start by looking at your own work group rather than others. Let’s all be candid and caring as we do this.”
There are times to hold off chiming in with your opinion. That’s especially important when doing everyday brainstorming or coaching. In brainstorming, the boss’s words carry significant weight. If you speak too soon, you may find people deferring to you out of respect ― or fear. Since brainstorming benefits from having more ideas on the table rather than fewer, you’re better off letting others go first. Better yet, consider brainwriting. Ask everyone to write down their ideas before any discussion. This enables people to think independently and avoids locking down a few ideas too early. It’s also a great way to get the best from the introverts on your team who like to process ideas before sharing them aloud.
But there’s another situation that calls for a special communication skill. Leaders also need to know when to stop another speaker in the moment. I call it the art of strategic interruption. Bad bosses lack this skill and interrupt whenever they darn well please. Good leaders do it sparingly ― and only for good reason.
Recognize 6 situations that call for strategic interruption
Here are some folks whose actions call for strategic interruption ― and what you might say when you encounter them.
1. The Meeting Dominator. When one or more people do the majority of speaking in meetings, other team members and their ideas go unheard. If one person is filibustering, you need to step in.
“Pat, I’m going to slide in here in the interest of getting more voices in the mix. Everyone, we’ve heard Pat’s insights on customer service. Who’s thinking about additional priorities for us?”
If you have a few people who routinely dominate group discussions, it’s best to talk to them outside the meeting. Let them know you value their input but also need their help getting other voices into the conversation. Ask them to hold back as you encourage the full range of input ― and then join in. You can also approach some of your quieter team members to let them know you’re eager to hear from them and want to make sure they’re comfortable speaking up.
2. The Subject Changer. People may come to meetings or one-on-ones with their own agendas. Or they default to whataboutism when their team or work is being discussed: “Excessive overtime? What about the IT department’s record?” As a leader, you need to keep meetings and conversations on track without leaving the impression that you don’t care about the alternative topic or the person who brings it up:
“Blake, let’s put this one in the parking lot for now. We’ll address that issue later, I promise. But for now we’re looking specifically at your team’s OT.”
3. The Misinformer. The organizational grapevine is often rife with rumors and bad info. It’s your job to ensure accuracy. Let’s say a person begins sharing speculation about future business plans that you know to be untrue. It doesn’t pay to let them continue causing needless worry or confusion:
“Jordan, hold on. I want to put that idea to rest. It’s not going to happen, and I don’t want you to expend any more of your good energy on that concern.”
4. The Toxic Tongue. Leadership demands that you keep toxicity out of the workplace. It may arise from innocent ignorance or ugly intentionality, but either option requires that you respond. Let’s say a male colleague casually refers to women as “girls” when discussing business. It’s on you to stop that habit by giving him guidance:
“Lou, before you go on, I need to let you know that you’ve referred to Jean in finance as a ‘girl’ several times. I don’t believe you mean any harm, but I owe it to you ― and to her ― to tell you that wording diminishes women.”
What if the language is much worse? Racist. Homophobic. Sexist. Over-the-top vulgar:
“Stop right now. That language is absolutely unacceptable. I apologize to everyone in this room who experienced it. And you and I will have a separate conversation to discuss next our steps.”
5 The Meandering Messenger. You may have team members who have a hard time getting to the point. Their preambles and side stories aren’t terrible, but they are time-consuming. Next time this happens, use it both as a chance to strategically interrupt and to provide guidance:
“Say, Kendall, before you get too far, may I just jump in here? I know you want to give me background, but I’d love it if you start with a headline first. You may not know this, but you sometimes get deeper into the weeds than we need to at the start of a talk. It can be more efficient to lead off with the news. Then we can cover additional ground with questions and answers.”
6. The Needless Apologist. A wise leader knows when to interrupt to build someone up, especially when a team member is insecure or too self-deprecating. In response to team members who preface conversations with, “This is may be a dumb idea,” “I know I’m just an intern…” or “I’m probably wrong, but…,” a leader can say:
“Let me jump in a moment to make this clear: Your voice is important. We want to hear your thoughts, so please never sell yourself short.”
Know the one time when interrupting is always the right move
There’s another time to strategically interrupt: For breaking news that’s worth stopping everything to share, especially when it’s good news. The interruption only adds to the sense that the message is meaningful. When you learn you’ve landed a valuable contract, or your team wins an award, or a colleague’s baby is born, don’t hesitate. Jump in with the happy news ― and celebrate!