Skilled Interrupting: 6 Polite Ways to Keep Meetings and Conversations on Track

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Don’t agree? Don’t understand? Holding a meeting where the subject has gone off track? Want someone to get to the point? “Learn to interrupt” is the advice given by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In negotiations, men tend to talk and interrupt more than women. Is it because women are trying to be more polite? If that’s the case, how do you interrupt without being rude … or closing the door to future conversations?

If you’ve ever been held captive by a long-winded vendor, you know that feeling of just wanting the person to finish … to just get to the point. You don’t want to be rude. You do have some interest … but you also have limited time.  

Get control from the start by defining the agenda and time, suggests Mary McIntyre for When you agree to an appointment, state how much time you have: “I can see you at 3 p.m. for about 30 minutes, Jim.” At that point, you can mention what you’d like to cover. Or if you wait until the time of the appointment, say something like: “Here’s what I’d like to go over today ….”

Even though you’ve laid some time-limiting groundwork, good old Jim may just be one of those people who can’t stick to the schedule. He knows a lot about his service, and he’s been trained to deliver his key selling points in a specific order. Keep an eye on the time. When it’s running short, you may need to politely interrupt. “Jim, let me stop you there …. Since we only have 10 minutes left, I want to be sure we cover all the price and delivery options. What information do you have about that?”

  1. If you reach the end of your allotted time, and the end of the presentation is in sight, it’s your call on whether to cut the meeting short. If you must wrap it up, say something positive, such as, “Jim, you’ve really given me a lot to think about. Unfortunately, it looks as though we’re not going to finish today. Would it be possible for you to email me details of our discussion, and add in the information about shipping that we weren’t able to cover?” Then stand up. There will be a little polite banter as you walk Jim to the door. Be sure to use his name, and end with a sincere, “I really enjoyed our time” or “I look forward to hearing from you.”
  2. Another option would be to give a quick recap of the meeting as time is getting short. “So thanks for explaining your program, Jim. It sounds like our best bet if we go with your system would be the …. I’ll take a closer look at all this tonight and let you know.” By summarizing the content of the discussion, you’re signaling that the conversation is wrapping up, says Lisa B. Marshall for
  3. A third option Marshall suggests is to make an excuse. “Thanks for sharing all this great information, Jim. I’m going to need to wrap our visit up or I’ll be late to my next appointment.”

Another key time to get comfortable interrupting is in a meeting (especially if you’re hosting). If one person is dominating the conversation, or has taken the discussion in a direction that has little to do with the topic, it’s up to you to redirect. If a participant is rallying people around an idea by summarizing inaccurately, speaking up is critical. Other meeting attendees are looking to you to keep things on course. Some good options:

  1. Getting back on track: “Steve, let me stop you there for just a moment. Although the information you’re talking about is interesting, it isn’t something we have time to delve into today. So, let’s get back to our topic. Bernadette, you had mentioned expanding … Does anyone else have ideas to add?” Or simply say: “Steve, I’m not sure I see how this relates to … Can you explain the connection?”
  2. Stopping a dominator: “Steve, let me make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Follow your interruption with a brief summary and maybe a quick question. Then ask for input from others. Sometimes the person dominating the conversation just wants to feel they’re being heard and understood and isn’t consciously trying to take over.
  3. To stop inaccurate information: “Steve, I can appreciate your view. But I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of our choices ….”

Interrupting is sometimes necessary in business. Learn to speak up when things start going off track. This will make you more effective in the business world. And it will make you feel more in control of your time and outcomes.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.