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Crucial Influence

Avoiding Electronic Interruptions

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m wondering how to deal with the use of electronic devices in meetings, conversations, and other public forums. At home, my kids are continually annoying my husband and me with their use of so-called smart devices. At work, we don’t have clear guidelines about electronic interruptions and it’s the cause of some tension and discontent. What can we do to (1) set clear expectations and (2) keep ourselves from seeing every electronic invitation as just cause for interrupting a live conversation?


Dear Interrupted,

Let’s start with a common example of the problem. You’re talking to Chris, one of your best friends, and her phone notifies her that she’s just received a text. You can tell Chris is torn between listening to you and checking her message. Trying to appear interested in the point you’re making, Chris craftily moves her phone so it’s now sitting at the top of her open purse. Chris then coughs into her hand—causing her to lean her head forward so she can catch a quick glimpse of the newly arrived message.

You can tell Chris is torn between responding to the message and talking to you, but you believe face-to-face conversations should be given priority so you continue with your point. But when you finish your idea, Chris responds by holding up her hand and signaling you to stop yacking. She then picks up her device and dashes off a response while you watch and wait. All of this is done with a flair that suggests Chris has just texted advice on how to complete heart surgery that would most certainly kill the patient should she not intervene, when in fact she’s just told her son to make himself a bologna sandwich. You find the whole experience annoying and mutter something to the effect of, “If Alexander Graham Bell could only see. . .”

Situation number two. You’re in a meeting when you feel your phone vibrate. You glance at the screen, notice the call is from home, and wonder what’s going on. There are eight people in the meeting, you’re not talking, and you don’t want to make a scene by exiting. So you gently pull back from the table, tuck your head into your chest, bring your phone to your ear, hit the redial button, and chat quietly with your spouse. He wants you to pick up the dry cleaning on your way home. You’re glad he caught you before you left work but can’t help but notice your boss giving you the evil eye. “Phone Czar!” you think to yourself. It’s not as if you missed anything important or interrupted anybody.

Or how about this? Your teenage son walks into the room with ear buds plugged into his head and you try to say something to him but he can’t hear you. When your son eventually responds, he more or less shouts at you. You tell him to turn down the volume or he’ll surely be deaf by age thirty. He retorts that he wouldn’t mind losing his hearing because then he “won’t have to listen to you complain.”

Variations of these electronic insults are manifest, myriad, and magnifying with each new invention. Why? Because as a society, we haven’t decided on the common courtesies and basic rules of electronic etiquette and we’re starting to drive each other nuts.

When you have the option to use a device to make your life more convenient—even if doing so might interfere ever so slightly with your face-to-face experience—you often take the digital path. After all, it’ll only take a few seconds and it’ll solve a problem before it grows out of hand. In contrast, when others interrupt a conversation by using a device for their convenience—well, that’s just plain rude.

We’re obviously not going to solve this problem easily or quickly. New forms of electronic disruptions are sprouting up faster than ever and with each new tool comes new violations of traditional social norms. The problem is very likely to continue for years. However, there are a few things you can and should do now.

First, create a “bug list”—an enumeration of the behaviors you find annoying or even offensive. Use this list to decide which issues warrant a conversation. You’ll let some problems slide because they’re not worth the discussion. You also won’t speak up to everyone since you don’t interact with certain offenders frequently enough to justify the conversation.

Once you have your list of problems, fight your burning desire to point fingers and act smugly. Don’t come up with a list of your ideas of what should and shouldn’t be done. You may have some very strong notions, but you don’t make the rules. Social norms are made by whole societies of people and consist of rough guidelines. They reflect current feelings and changing preferences, not scientific certainties. The guidelines you create need to be jointly developed and flexible.

So, instead of laying down your law, tentatively describe the problem. Ask others to share their view of the same concerns then move to a discussion of specific issues that are currently causing problems. Talk about the questionable actions and their consequences (often unintended). Establish basic principles such as “face-to-face interactions deserve priority” and “when genuine emergencies arise, excuse yourself from the conversation and move to a private location.”

Keep the tone of these conversations light and exploratory. Genuinely seek others’ point of view then jointly brainstorm solutions. Try out your new ideas and then make changes as necessary. In summary, go public, involve others, be flexible, and realize that new products are just around the corner so this discussion will continue for quite some time.

When it comes to encouraging yourself to stick with the rules, be prepared. You will be tempted to break your own code of conduct when doing so is convenient rather than socially sensitive. Motivate and enable your behavior with six sources of influence.

Source 1: Connect to Values. Keep in mind the long-term consequences of maximizing your convenience at the expense of harming your relationships
Source 2: Invest in Deliberate Practice. Work on your Crucial Conversations skills. When others offend you, know what to say and how to say it.
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices Into Friends. Gain the support of others by continually going public with new challenges as they arise. As you discuss the issue, seek advice from a colleague or loved one who can give you feedback on how well you’re keeping your own rules.
Source 5: Reward with Care. Reward yourself when you step up to the conversation and handle it well or when you take care to respect others over your electronic devices.
Source 6: Change the Environment. Use devices to solve the problem created by devices. For instance, a product was just announced at CES—the world’s largest consumer technology tradeshow. When a parent enters a room and talks to her teenage son who is wearing ear buds, the device recognizes the parent’s voice, turns down the volume of the device, and amplifies the volume of the parent. How cool is that?

I hope this helps you think about the growing electronic onslaught and provides you with a starting point for helpful conversations and a reasonable change in behavior.

I’d love to hear your creative strategies for controlling your digital devices so they don’t control you. Share your ideas below.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

14 thoughts on “Avoiding Electronic Interruptions”

  1. Beth Boynton, RN, MS

    Great dialogue and suggestions about electronic interruptions. I am fascinated by underlying dynamics that involve norms and limit-setting, (with one’s self and others).

    In nursing we have so many interruptions, many that are necessary and many that are not. I believe norms and limit-setting play a role here too as well as workload.

    If interested, you might enjoy my 12 min YouTube called: “Interruption Awareness: A Nursing Minute for Patient Safety”.

    I’m grateful for feedback and sharing.


  2. Carol Paquette

    As a certified instructor for VitalSmarts and Crucial Conversations, I say at the beginning of the class (and every other training session), “In order to minimize interruptions during class, I’m going to ask that you kindly step out of the room if you have to use your phone for any reason – including checking messages. This is disruptive for me as the instructor and for your fellow class participants.” Sure I’ve gotten a few strange looks but people overall seem to respect my rule.

  3. Betty Anne Mills

    Phone etiquette is a growing problem. (1) I make it a point to turn off my phone during meetings. Usually I turn my phone off in front of everyone and make a comment like, “I really try to remember to shut off my phone so I don’t get distracted or distract everyone else during the meeting.” Sometimes I will add something like, “Surely the world won’t come to an end for one hour!” Comments like the ones above said in a nonjudgmental way usually results in others following suit with their phones.
    (2)I make it a rule to leave my phone out of earshot (in my car during client appointments) so as not to be distracted by the phone during an appointment.
    (3) If you are expecting an important call that just cannot wait, either let the person you are meeting (or the person in charge of the meeting) know ahead of time that the interruption is unavoidable and that you may have to step out of the room, etc.

  4. Mike

    I can’t help but think that the admonition from Crucial Conversations to “work on yourself first” applies to this situation. Rather than starting by trying to fix everyone else, I began by working to reduce my own electronic etiquette errors. Subsequent crucial conversations with others about electronic etiquette norms were easier and more productive; I could not only empathize with others’ situations and behaviors, I could also share my own journey — complete with pitfalls and backsliding along the way.

  5. Tom Kregel

    Here is another twist to the conversation. Offices are trying to go paperless. I have been in the habit of grabbing pens and notebooks (the spiral kind) when going to a meeting. I realized what a waste of time and energy it is to be carrying this stuff all over our 20 square block campus (the Mayo Clinic). A better solution is to take notes on my phone and email them to myself. This can also be done with the new pads, Nooks and Kindles. Given electronic note taking, no one knows if I am taking notes, texting or checking my emails. If I do attempt to do anything other than take notes, my attention becomes divided and my meeting performance goes down. However, I admit that it is a temptation to answer emails and keep my remote coworkers on task by answering their queries. It may also be one of those low priority monthly department update meetings and it has paused due to electronic difficulties connecting to remote locations.
    When I do use an electronic device for notes I can tell some people are irritated. They may be assuming I am not paying attention. It all comes down to maximizing productivity for me and my coworkers. This may be a cultural shift that the next generation will have an easier time dealing with. We all need to develop internal monitors to signal if we are not fully engaged. We also need to learn not to judge others by the old queues, and go back to looking for the signs that we are heard by others.
    I agree completely with the article on the need for engaged communication with less electronic interruptions but we need to be aware that some of the obsolete signs of disengagement may not always be accurate.

  6. Catherine

    Both my sister and my best friend text to me quite often. However, we’ve set a rule: texts need not be read or responded to immediately. They will phone me if it is very important, e.g., someone is ill or the like. I also consider it vital that phones/smart devices be turned on silent during meetings. Face to face trumps phones, always.

  7. V Lipscomb

    I am very glad this question was asked! The workplace and the home is an environment of several generations. Behavior one group considers rude and disrespectful, is considered common place by another. My experience with CC and the conscious effort to script situations in a ‘gentler, kinder way’ has led to big benefits for me. One is the ability to hold successfull conversations about student involvement with their personal technology devices during my classes. We have ‘rules of conduct.’ They are discused and decided upon by the class the first day of every class.

  8. grizzly bear mom

    As a single without kids, I phone/text infrequently. It appears to me that if we trained ALL families/work personnel that only when we texted 911! should we answer immediately. It seems texts se are less disruptive than listening and talking on phones.

    Also if you are taking notes on your device, say early: I’ll be taking minutes or George could you repeat that last point about the strategic human capital cost? so all know that you are WORKING and not otherwise which makes YOU appear unprofessional and distracts them. I was once typing a bosses comments into my computer when he stopped and told me to pay attention to him. I had to explain that was exactly what I was doing.

  9. grizzly bear mom

    True story: at my 2,000 member church, the pastor was about to conduct the introit and carry the bible down the aisle to the church alter and begin the service, when a woman held up 1 finger, asking him to wait for the end of her call. In this case I would recommend that we ask GOD how he would manage the situation, but I don’t have his cell number (giggle!.)

  10. Lee

    Isn’t this a fascinating conversation – electronic too, no less! The problem with the electronic interruption is that it is so darn obvious. To use the best friend example from the beginning: In the bad old days, Chris may have APPEARED to be listening, but might have been totally distracted by something going on elsewhere. We can be upright, eyes open, but brain not present, with or without electronics. The human brain is a fickle thing.

  11. Jill

    I’ve read a couple of articles online describing a new game “The Phone Stack”. When eating out with friends, all phones are put in the middle of the table and left to beep and buzz. The first one to pick up their phone before the meal is over picks up the check. I think it is brilliant. I’m not sure how to translate it to the business world, but it seems perfect for a night out with the girls.

  12. Kerry

    Yes, in meetings and other large crowds, it can be hard to tell if individuals who are typing on a smart device are taking notes or something else. As a university professor with classes of around 80 students–all taking notes on their laptops or smart phones–it is hard to know who’s actually attending to the topic or emailing or what. I have taken the stance of assuming the best of others and not become upset at the first site of typing into a device. This keeps me in a far better mood, helps me avoid rushing to judgement, and allows others the freedom to use their devices to serve their own best purposes.

  13. Jenifer Wilson

    I become very frustrated when I host parties and it seems the attendees are constantly on their phones. To lighten the mood and keep my parties social, I put a “Fruit Basket” on the table for all the “Blackberries” and “Apples”. My friends had a great sense of humor about it, and I think we all had a better time without all the interruptions.

    P.S. I even had one friend change her ringtone for her babysitter so she didn’t have to look every time there was a call. 🙂

  14. editor

    @Jenifer I love your fruit basket idea. What a fun way to modify the phone stack game @Jill mentioned. Thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts and ideas for controlling your digital devices!

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