At an informal gathering, I overheard Carlie ask some advice of Brad about a serious problem she’d been coping with. It wasn’t a private conversation; I was sitting nearby and heard it all. But it was clearly a personal conversation and so I stayed out of it.
Then Andy arrived. He approached Brad, and without noticing that a conversation was in progress -- and a serious one at that -- he barged in, asking Brad a question as if they were the only two people in the room. Carlie’s eyes bulged with amazement at the intrusion. I was as taken aback as she was.
Carlie subsequently told me that later in the day she confronted Andy and told him he’d better not ever interrupt her again. Or as she put it, “Don’t! You! Ever! Interrupt! Me! Again!”
This encounter struck me as intriguing. This was not the first time Andy had interrupted a conversation. He was a gentle sort who meant well, but was in many ways socially clueless. He so often annoyed people with endless boring monologues that they went out of their way to avoid him. Carlie, like many others, wasn’t fond of Andy even before this encounter.
Still, who hasn’t, at one time or another, innocently barged into a conversation others were having? I’ve done it. Maybe you have too. It’s not the worst faux pas in the world. In fact, interruptions are not uncommon in many social situations. So sternly chastising Andy as Carlie did probably left him confused about what he’d done that was so bad.
So in what other ways might Carlie (or you or I) have handled the situation? One possibility when confronting Andy later on might have been to say, “Look, Andy, I was having a serious conversation with Brad when you interrupted. In the future, could you please take a moment to notice if there’s a conversation in progress before you interrupt?”
Or more to the point: “Look, Andy, I was having a serious conversation with Brad when you interrupted. Please don’t do that again.”
Or even better, right at the moment of the interruption, “Andy, I’m talking to Brad about a serious problem. Would you mind if we finish?”
If I were to face a similar situation, I’m not sure I’d have the presence of mind to offer any of these responses. But thinking about this encounter has helped me consider my options. Knowing Andy, I might soon get the opportunity to try them out.
How might you have handled the situation?