The Art of Interrupting

Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed.   - Peter Drucker

After reading last week’s post about working styles, you hopefully know a bit more about how you and your project team members approach different situations. Understanding those styles may help a bit as you hone another important skill that every project manager must learn – the art of interrupting!

  Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I am sure that you grew up hearing from parents and teachers that you, in fact, should NOT interrupt people. And I do agree with them in most situations. Interrupting someone is basically telling them that what you have to say is more important than what she has to say.

But in some situations, it is perfectly appropriate for project managers to interrupt their team members mid-sentence. Your role as a project manager is to keep everyone on task in meetings and just in general as you move toward your goals. So it should actually be expected that you will need to (politely) interrupt people from time to time.

If you have mastered the art of facilitation, then you have a good head start! Let’s use meetings as an example. When you are facilitating a meeting, time is usually not on your side. You have your whole team together, which is likely one of the few times you are all in the same room in a given week. Like the great project manager you are, you are following the agenda you created prior to the meeting. And your goal is to accomplish everything you have on the agenda within the predetermined timeframe.

So when is it okay to interrupt people?

  • The team is going off-topic. Since the team may not be together too often, it is probably tempting for them to try to get other topics of conversation into the mix that are not on the agenda. Or they may fall down a rat hole that has no end in sight. You need to assess the situation to see whether you should let the conversation go on, or if you need to (politely) interrupt the conversation to get back on track.
  • The point has already been made. This one can happen a lot, especially if you have passionate people on your team! When multiple people start saying basically the same thing, it is okay to (politely) interrupt whoever is currently making the point again. It’s been said – we all agree (or maybe not). Regardless, let’s make note and move on!
  • The team is in violent agreement. This one is always interesting. The team is having a heated discussion and it sounds like they are disagreeing with each other. But because you have mastered the art of listening, you are actually hearing that they are agreeing with each other, but saying things a bit differently. So you need to swoop in and (politely) interrupt the conversation to point out to the team that they can stop fighting because they are actually in agreement. (And then all have a little laugh!)
  • The right people are not in the room to make a decision. I wrote about this one in an earlier post about decisions. But basically, if you hear that people are talking in circles about a decision that needs to be made, but no one is willing or able to make the decision, then you should (politely) stop the conversation, confirm who needs to be in the conversation, and then follow up with the appropriate group of people after the meeting.
  • People start solutioning. If your agenda does not include time for brainstorming or coming up with solutions, then (politely) ask people to refocus the conversation if they start diving into the details. You do not want to stifle creativity, so I find myself letting this kind of conversation go on a bit, taking notes, then summarizing what I heard and assigning an action to dig into the solution further after the meeting.
  • You are running out of time. Time! As I defined as part of my working style, time is the thing I care about most!! When you start running out of time in a meeting, you may need to (politely) interrupt people to make sure that the meeting does not run over. For me, all of the above items are about not wasting time on conversations that should not be happening. It all comes down to time and using it wisely!

So now you know when it might be okay to interrupt people. But how do you do it politely without being seen as rude; but rather, being seen as doing your job correctly to help the team achieve its goals?

Follow these steps, and you will be politely interrupting like a star in no time!

  • Set your team’s expectations. Let them know what your role is as the project manager and meeting facilitator -- that among other things, you will need to move the conversation along and may need to interrupt people occasionally to stay on track.
  • If possible, find a break in the conversation to speak up. This one may be hard to do, but it is better to find a break in the conversation than to actually talk over someone who is currently speaking. But if you must, you must.
  • Let them know that you heard them. Summarize what you are hearing and check that your understanding is correct – that is, that one of the above situations is occurring.
  • Tell them how and when they can continue the discussion (or not). If it is something that still needs to be discussed – but just not at this very moment – put it on the parking lot or an action item list, schedule follow-up meetings, and/or add it to the meeting agenda for next time.
  • Smile. If you are genuinely nice about it and explain your intent, people will understand. And a smile always helps.