I am on the phone, counseling a friend regarding an important issue when my son comes up to me and tugs on my shirt.
I give a look that says, not now.
I give the stern raised eyebrow look that says, don’t bug me now.
I cover the mic on my phone but still whisper with intensity, “Unless your brother is dying, the house is burning down, or you’ve found a snake in the house, it can WAIT!”
Then he slinks away, disgusted that he is stuck with me as his father.
After the call, I discovered he couldn’t reach the peanut butter jar because his sibling had put it on the wrong shelf.
Raising four kids within seven years of age meant a busy household when my kids were younger. Ten grandkids and now a great-grandson means life is still incredibly active in our home at times. I could give you hundreds (maybe thousands) of examples where either at home or work, an unwanted and unnecessary interruption invaded my world. Many times, I’ve been knee-deep in something (like writing a talk or a blog), and there’s a knock on my door (for the 10th time) as someone asks, “Do you have a quick minute?”
What they need might only take a minute or two, but after ten or twenty interruptions, it all adds up. Have you noticed how interruptions always come at the worst possible time? Come to think of it, it wouldn’t be an interruption if I weren’t doing something else, would it? I don’t run a corporation like Elon Musk does. I’m not the president of the United States. But my life often seems to be one interruption after another, which can be stressful.
So, here are a few things I’ve learned when it comes to this issue.
First, interruptions are a normal part of life.
Unless you live alone in the desert as a monk or always behind a closed door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the handle (which is self-centered), interruptions happen. Get over it. Get used to it. Change your opinion about disruptions and disturbances. Once you stop getting frustrated by the inevitable, you’ll have fewer emotional breakdowns.
For the record, I interrupt myself all the time. I am doing one thing while I start another. (You do too.) Face it, you and I aren’t as focused as we pretend to be. And come to think of it, stop lights are a bothersome interruption too, but they make driving safer and left-hand turns a lot easier. Oh, and American football has a lot of interruptions (about every minute or two). Still, I prefer it over soccer (the other football), which bores me with its nonstop action leading to a not-so-exciting conclusion of 1-0. My apologies to soccer fans.
My kids, spouse, employees, etcetera, etcetera frequently interrupt me, but maybe it’s good to be needed. Again, a change in my perspective here will reduce my tension when “bothered” by an interruption.
Second, many interruptions can be reasonably contained.
Sometimes it’s best to close your door and hang that sign on the knob. Critical moments (like when you must pull something out of the oven or it will be ruined) should not be derailed by non-life-threatening interference.
So, here are some ways to politely handle an unnecessary invasion:
- Gently lift your hand as you smile and say, “Please give me just a moment and I will help you in a sec.”
- Without a tone of arrogance or being snippy, say, “Would you mind if I finish this _____ so I can give you my full attention?”
- Again, without a sour attitude, ask, “Can this wait for just a bit? It’s important that I finish what I’m doing right now.”
- When interrupted in a conversation, gently say, “Would you mind if I finish my thought?”
You don’t have to be driven by someone else’s agenda or their supposed “emergency.”
You can and should establish some healthy boundaries. But rather than snap at someone, whether it’s your kid, spouse, or co-worker, learn to use some simple and kind phrases that redirect the interrupter.
Your child or spouse needs to learn that they are not the center of the world. Your co-worker or employee must learn to refrain from reacting to every situation by running to you for everything. Giving them a moment to reflect and reasonably respond is often best for them. The smartest person in the room (at least as they see it) needs to learn the skill of listening to others who may not have all the answers they have. Everyone matters and needs to be heard.
One final thing. As I’ve written before, sometimes you “spot it ’cause you’ve got it.”
In other words, you might be overly sensitive to being interrupted because you have a terrible habit of interrupting others. I have a nasty habit of thinking and talking too fast. So, I tend to finish people’s sentences for them because I think I know where they’re headed. No bueno.
I get easily bored and sometimes interrupt someone because I’m arrogant and figure what I am doing is more important than whatever trivial thing they are occupied with. Muy no bueno. Perhaps—and I might be onto something here—but maybe I should also give the grace and kindness to others that I need.
A change in our perspective regarding interruptions will result in less personal annoyance and relational stress when it happens.
And it will happen.
Speaking of… I gotta run; my grandkid needs some peanut butter.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Kurt Bubna