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Conversation Interruptus: Critical Social Skill or Just Plain Rudeness? : Remember When 'Don't Interrupt' Was Being Polite?

December 14, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Hey, wait a minute. Uh, pardon me. Excuse me, please, but aren't interruptions:

(a) the height of rudeness?

(b) the latest in yuppie social diplomacy?

(c) essential for effective communication?

(d) all of the above?

If you guessed all of the above, consider yourself in the right conversational ballpark. For while interrupting others is still put down as being obnoxiously rude, it's now also viewed as a social skill as critical as knowing how to position yourself for a fat raise or what to do if someone pinches you in the elevator.

A Study of Interruptions

Disrupting other people's speech--whether it's to keep your meeting from running overtime, to inform your doctor of additional symptoms before he or she launches into a diagnosis, to derail a conversational showboat or simply grab the spotlight yourself--has been studied increasingly by academics and lay advisers alike.

Nobody seems to know for sure or even agree on why many interruptions occur. And now that proper ways to interrupt are being taught, there are any number of conflicting opinions on whether communication is best facilitated by talkers fluent in interrupting techniques, listening skills--or both.

But one thing is clear: Never before has it been so easy to interrupt others or be interrupted yourself, at least in those quarters of the world equipped with high technology.

Technology Makes It Easy

Today, for example, thanks to the invention of call waiting, it's possible to interrupt someone with a phone call even when they're already on the telephone. And interactive computer systems frequently permit workers to interrupt colleagues by flashing messages across their screens--no matter what else they may be doing.

But even old-fashioned, low-tech speech interruptions are prevalent and menacing enough that there are now growing numbers of places where normally polite individuals can learn the slickest and most advanced ways to take control of a conversation and interrupt others.

UCLA Medical Center, for instance, has been training patients in the delicate art of getting their doctors to shut up and listen. (For several years now, studies by conversation analysts and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that physicians typically interrupt their patients far more than patients interrupt their doctors' conversations.)

For the last four years, Dr. Sheldon Greenfield, a UCLA professor of medicine and public health, and Sherrie Kaplan, a UCLA assistant professor of public health, have been teaching patients "how to be more outspoken with their doctors."

"We try to find out why they don't ask questions, if they're intimidated, if they're embarrassed. We try to get them to see the reasons they're afraid or why they forget to ask things. We encourage them to define their questions specifically so the doctors don't avoid them," explained Greenfield, who is also an internist and co-director of the Rand Corp.'s Center for the Study of Health Policy.

All this communication training happens in a single, private, 20-minute session in which about 200 patients have thus far participated--with encouraging results, some of which have been reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

After patients were trained for 20 minutes in how to use "controlling behaviors, including interruptions," with their doctors, interruptions by doctors decreased from an average of six to three per visit, said Kaplan, while at the same time interruptions by patients increased from an average of one per visit to four per visit.

More significantly, the health of patients improved. "Outcomes were improved in three separate trials," Greenfield recalled. "A group of diabetic patients showed improved blood sugar control. A group of patients with hypertension showed decreases in their blood pressure levels. Patients with ulcers also improved. It was very dramatic. We think it happened because the patients were getting a much better sense of control over their own care and a sense of collegiality with the doctor."

Private Consultants

But you don't have to participate in a university research project to learn how to be a polished buttinsky.

Some private communications consultants do considerable business in training executives how to interrupt others and how to talk so they won't be cut off. And, according to these trainers, many professional talkers who appear on television have undergone such schooling.

Christen Brown, a Beverly Hills-based communications consultant whose On Camera firm has trained executives at such Fortune 500 companies as Xerox, Hughes and TRW, has also prepared a number of guests and anchors for network talk shows.

"I've seen people who later became clients of mine go on David Susskind with a group of guests and get to say only about six sentences because no one had trained them in interruption techniques," said Brown, who declined to make public the names of her more celebrated trainees, saying it would be a breach of professional ethics.

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