You’re talking in a meeting and halfway through making your point, your colleague jumps in with an unsolicited comment. Instead of letting you finish talking, they divert the conversation to themselves, leaving you feeling irritated. What’s more, your boss appears to give your co-worker the credit for what was supposed to be your idea.
For the most part, interrupting someone is rude and unlikely to build good relationships at work. But there’s another form of interruption that sociologists call “cooperative overlapping” — which can actually be a good thing.
When you “overlap” with someone speaking, you aren’t necessarily trying to steal the focus away from the speaker. Instead, it shows you are actively listening and engaged in what the person is saying. This might mean making small, enthusiastic remarks or contributing comments to show interest in what the person is saying and keep the conversation flowing.
The term “cooperative overlapping” was first coined by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her 1984 book Conversational Style: Analysing Talk Among Friends. She describes it as a “striking aspect of high involvement style” in which a listener talks “along with a speaker not in order to interrupt but to show enthusiastic listenership and participation.”
In other words, interrupting someone might not always be seen as disrespectful.
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“Cooperative overlapping can be a way to build enthusiasm and ideas, the key is cooperation - so everyone in the conversation needs to be on board with this approach,” says Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.
“It also needs to be reciprocal, so all parties have the opportunity to share their ideas. It’s a good idea to have some pauses in the conversation to check everyone is listening and taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.”
Although cooperating overlapping can be a sign of interest and engagement, it can depend on the relationship between who is speaking and who is overlapping.
“If managed well, cognitive overlapping can build strong relationships,” says Roberts. “Think about when you chat with a good friend - sometimes you overlap when speaking. “This should be managed with caution though, it’s important to also remember to actively listen to the other person, if it gets to the point where each of you is talking at the same time for an extended period of time, this may damage the relationship.”
In her chapter Gossip in an Older Women's Support Group: A Linguistic Analysis, linguist Pamela Saunders explains that an overlap may be construed as cooperative in a conversation between two friends, but not between a boss and employee.
“Overlaps and interrogative have different meanings depending on the speakers' ethnicity, gender, and relative status differences. For example, when a teacher, a person of higher status, overlaps with her student, a person of lower status, typically the overlap is interpreted as an interruption.”
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Ultimately, whether overlapping is seen as rude boils down to how the speaker sees their relative status to the other person. It also depends on whether those talking share the same communication style, in which cooperative overlapping encourages and expands the conversation, rather than stifling it.
Among those who don’t share the same style, overlapping can disrupt the flow of the conversation and cause the speaker to feel frustrated or annoyed. In addition, being overlapped can be challenging for those who are less assertive and for some neurodiverse people.
“If someone is continually interrupting another person without asking for permission, this can be a negative experience over time,” Roberts says. “However, interrupting can be done in a constructive way by using a friendly tone, and asking if it’s ok to jump in. At Pixar, the ‘plussing’ technique is used to debate ideas - so rather than dismissing an idea, others can add to it - they ‘plus' the idea.
“So if you’re helping to develop someone’s idea, you can politely interrupt in some instances and this can be viewed as a positive and collaborative action,” she adds.
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