There are few issues related to dialogue more annoying, more prone to misinterpretation, than interruptions. You’re happily sharing the latest and greatest from your mental repertoire, only to have it suddenly sidelined by a variable completely outside your control. It’s like that moment when walking down a city street, minding your own business, when an invisible crack in the concrete trips you up. Heart-racing, arms akimbo, head whipping around to see who saw, any shred of the thinking you were just engaged in shattered.
Art of the Conversation
Interruptions are a great way of showing what dialogue is largely about. Contrary to a common notion of it being an exchange of ideas, dialogue is far more concerned with the desire to be heard. If dialogue was really concerned with an exchange of ideas for the purpose of growing our knowledge-base, we’d be in a fight to see who could stay silent the longest. On the contrary, the struggle in dialogue is usually about who can say what more often, in the most witty, ear-catching way, particularly if it leads to the other person repeating what they just heard. This brings to mind the old advice we all got from our wise grandparents, that if God wanted us to talk more She’d have given us two mouths instead of two ears. Unfortunately, it’s more the case that we have two ears precisely because we want to make sure we hear ourselves talk.
We don’t share our opinions or behave the way we do without a bone-deep belief in the rightness of our actions. Having others acknowledge our words and actions, even at the cost of another person’s equanimity, is a small price to pay, in our eyes, for continued confirmation.
In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Power of Being Heard
Interruptions serve another purpose as well: acknowledgment. They’re a tacit, and sometimes not so much, attempt by the person doing the interrupting that they consider themselves and what they have to say as at least as important as whatever the other person is doing. I hazard to guess that interruptions occur far more regularly from bosses to their subordinates and, in the case of children interrupting their parents, is about asserting their importance. The vast number of stories about bosses getting in the way of work and children getting in the way of parental social situations seems to bear this out, albeit anecdotally.
Some, reading the above, may believe that what is truly going on there is about power. However, acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily have to be about power, or at least not at its most basic level. Power requires a certain social structure to be played out. Instead, the focus here is more generally a concern of existential angst, or, in other words: the need to be seen.
We really, really, need to belong. It’s why there’s never a waking moment when we aren’t considering, at some mental level, who we are in relation to something, someone or some group. And at the heart of that need is a concern with our continued existence. This is why banishing or ostracism has been such a powerful tool for punishment and social control. We crave the continued acknowledgment of our social ties because being alone or cut off is a yawning abyss.
Seen in this light, interruption is a great indicator of one’s anxiety, connected to whatever relationship is currently being attended to. Rather than seeing it as some great social affront or pointing to a lack of care for the other, the broader concern for connection, being seen and knowing one belongs, can be acknowledged. Not every interruption points to a narcissistic pathology, sometimes, if not often, it’s simply about being human.