How to Have a Productive(ish) Conversation With Someone Who Interrupts You All the Time

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At last night’s debate, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times in the space of 90 minutes, reports Annalisa Merelli at Quartz. He would talk over her for seconds — which felt like minutes — at a time, and did much the same to moderator Lester Holt.

It was the latest example of Trump’s steamroll-y, I’m-in-charge routine, and the sort of thing, from someone whose personality reeks of needy narcissism, we’ve come to expect. But while Trump may be at the center of the national stage, talking over everybody in range isn’t limited to reality stars. You could work with, work for, hang out with, or even be married to a serial interrupter. The question, then, is how the hell do you even talk to someone who won’t let you get a word in?

Relationship therapist Peter Pearson, who founded the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, with his wife, Ellyn Bader, 32 years ago, tells Science of Us that one of the main skills needed is “meta conversation” — you’ve got to talk about how you’re talking, what it means to interrupt, and why that’s a problem. Pearson, who self-effacingly describes himself as quite accomplished in talking over people, says that he and his wife had to spend a long time learning how to “meta” with each other. “I’m not going to say, ‘are you finished?’” he says, “I want to keep my spontaneity. But if you think I’m interrupting, tell me to put a cork in it.” He wouldn’t perceive it as rude; that was the conversational culture he grew up in. Having meta conversation in real time, and respectively communicating your needs? That’s not rude, it’s relational.

“It took her a while to get comfortable to say, ‘Wait until I’m finished,’ and it took a long time of me saying, ‘Thank you for being clear,’” he says. And if their interruption pulls you off track of what you were trying to say, tell them that.

At work, it depends on the relationship you have with the interrupter in question: Are they your direct report, your boss, a friendly acquaintance from another department? If it’s a solid relationship, then you might be able to express the vulnerability entailed by having the meta conversation.

Given that the only character who barges in more than Trump is the Kool-Aid Man, Clinton and her team clearly accounted for his peculiar conversational style. She was prepared on two levels: the contents of her arguments, Pearson observes, and the emotional preparation of debating with a guy who tries to dominate every situation. She prepped not just for ideas, but for behavior. It’s a model couples could make more more use of, he says, judging from the dynamics that walk into his office.

“The problem is, couples don’t want to think about how they should be prepared when their partner is interrupting, snipe-y, or passive-aggressive,” Pearson says. “Couples don’t want to prepare for that. The fallback position for most couples is ‘My partner shouldn’t do what they’re doing, they should change it; I should not learn how to deal with it more effectively — the real solution is my partner needs to change.’ When both people have that attitude, they’re heading into the abyss. [With Clinton], instead of saying ‘Donald shouldn’t interrupt me,’ she said, ‘Yeah, he will, and I need to prepare for it.’”

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