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Carolyn Hax: How to handle fast talkers who never listen

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: How do you deal with folks who talk fast and never seem interested in listening? They interrupt nonstop. I can’t even get an entire sentence out. These are all people who are valuable to me, have a lot of advice and wisdom, and care about my happiness.

Interrupted: A few options:

1. For interruptions: [Whoa gesture] “Wait, I wasn’t finished.”

2. Let them finish their interruption, then say: “I was speaking. May I finish?”

3. [Whoa gesture] “I’m sorry, I can’t keep up. You’re talking too fast for me.”

4. Go quiet until the person notices. When you see your moment to jump into the conversation, don’t take it. If they ask why you’re silent, say, “I can’t keep up,” or, “You were rolling, so I just let you go.” If they never ask or even notice, then pretend you’re at story time and enjoy the rest.

Each option is most effective without rancor. These are people you value and want in your life. You’re trying to fix it, not blow it up.

Quiet assertiveness is hard and feels awkward until you get into the habit. And it can feel weaker than shoving yourself into the dynamic with force but, counterintuitively, it’s stronger to hold your own tone and pace under pressure.

Last thing: Be realistic about your relationships with your interrupters. If you’re connected for the quality of their companionship, then it might be time to rethink. But if you’re in it for more transactional reasons — this is a mentor, an older relative, a cooperative neighbor, etc. — then you can decide upfront to put up with, forgive, ignore or write off more of their bad habits than you might otherwise, because you’re not in it for the easy rapport.

  • I have a relative who frequently interrupts me. For the past few years, I have been saying: “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” This is always met with silence, every single time, then they say, “No, go on.” Win-win.
  • My mother-in-law is a constant interrupter. My mom just continues telling her story or finishing her thought, only pausing once she is done. After a few words, my mother-in-law stops her interruption and seems to notice her error.
  • People with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder often interrupt because we’re trying to show that we are paying attention by interjecting with a, “Me, too!” example, then sometimes we get carried away and can’t shut up. We can also be so afraid that we’re going to forget what we want to say that we have to say it right now, or else it will be gone forever.
  • For everyone who gets upset by “interrupters,” please make sure you’re giving people an opportunity to speak. I find that a lot of people who don’t like to be interrupted are people who won’t let others get a word in edgewise. If an “interrupter” is your friend, truly your friend, have some compassion for their conversational style.
  • I’m afflicted with this. I will not make excuses for it. I know it’s wrong, and I wish I didn’t do it. I am working on it. I’ve been practicing counting to three when I think someone is finished speaking to be sure I’m not cutting them off. My plea: Please don’t assume malice. Many of us are excited or passionate or maybe struggle with social anxiety.

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