Imagine this, a co-worker enters your office and says:
"Cathy, could I talk with you for a minute? I'm having a
real problem with...." You glance at your watch and think of
the report that's due in an hour. What do you do?
What would happen if you were Cathy's supervisor?
Let's continue. You're cooking dinner, starting to
destress, the food preparation timing is coming together--
for once--and your mother calls: "Could we talk? It's
important. I need someone to talk to?" What do you say?
What we would like to say and what we end up doing is
usually two different things. Good news, tactfully saying
no is a learned skill. It requires know-how and practice.
Let's talk about ten how-tos and alternatives that can help
Tip 1: There are three parts to meshing a "no, but not no"
response. The first part acknowledges and empathizes. The
second part gives a situation statement. In the third, and
last, part is an action statement.
An example of an empathy or acknowledgment statement:
"Sam, I'm sure this problem is important."
Next, add the second part, a situation statement. For
instance: "I'm working on a report that I promised to have
completed within the next hour."
The third part, an action statement, needs to describe what
you will do or offer as an alternative: "Let's get together
after I've completed my report. How about 2 PM this
afternoon in your office?"
Instead of saying no directly, you have said no without
Tip 2: What if it's your supervisor interrupting you? What
do you do? Here's how to mesh the three parts into a no,
without any further interruption, and into a win for both.
Sandy, your supervisor enters, "Lisa, I hate to interrupt
you, but we have a real problem in the field, I need to talk
with you right away. Could I see you in my office?"
First, the acknowledgment statement: "Sandy, I'm sure this
is an important problem." Second, the situation segment:
"I'm working on that report you requested by noon." Third,
adding the action: "Would you like me to defer the report
until 3 PM [its imperative to offer an exact time] so we can
meet now? Or would you like me to complete this and then
come to your office?" This response allows your supervisor
to see your perspective and situation and to make a
Tip 3: Discouraging professional interrupters. These
professionals make a career out of interrupting. They start
talking and don't stop. They go on and on and when they
finally stop to catch a breath, and you get to say
something, they interrupt a few minutes later. How do you
Movement is the key. If cornered behind your desk, stand
up, and move. If you are already standing up, begin walking
out. If sitting down, stand up. You can also change
momentum by dropping something or turning sideways. Reach
for something that has nothing to do with the conversation
or excuse yourself to the restroom.
Interrupt in the same manner they use with you. It's okay,
they do it because it appears normal to them even if it
feels brash to you. Here are a few template statements:
"Where is this leading?" "What's your point, I've gotten
lost in what I think is the trivia?" "You have jumped
around so much on topics, I don't know which one to
It's important to practice patience throughout this process.
Professional interrupters don't usually hear you the first
few times you ask your question. If need be, become a
broken record. Continue to ask again until they do hear
you. Identify what is it about their communication style or
interruption process that annoys you. Provide this feedback
and communicate your preferred style of being interrupted in
a positive manner.
Tip 4: What about the few that don't get your hints or
listen to what you are saying? Sometimes they even follow
you down the hall or talk "at" you instead of "with" you?
This is a rude interrupter. Be firm, direct, and abrupt.
If they appear to be bruised, don't let it bother you. They
will not take what you said personally even if they say so.
Their "taken-aback" expression is just for show. Actually,
it is a form of manipulation. Don't play and don't
If they persist go ahead and give them an ultimatum: "You
rudely interrupt me. I've tolerated this in the past;
however, it has to stop NOW." When they finally realize you
are not playing their game, they will stop. They will either
totally avoid you in the future or return with respect.
Generally, they will return with a new awareness about
themselves. When they do, accept their apology. But don't
count on it. And if they don't return, you haven't lost
Tip 5: If you can, keep doing what you are doing. Look up,
smile, point to a notepad and pen, and then return to what
you were doing.
Tip 6: Sometimes the position of your furniture invites
interruptions. Especially if your office is beautifully
designed, or contains natural ingredients, like plants.
Others want to be around this energy. It's attractive.
It's renewing to them as much as it is to you. There's only
one suggestion when this occurs. Suggest that they change
their office to reflect a similar energy. Afterwards, they
will not want to leave their office as easily.
Tip 7: If you frequently get trapped behind your desk.
Plan and practice various escape routes and methods. Again,
consider rearranging the furniture to allow for escape
Tip 8: Discourage squatters. If your interruptions are due
to people consistently coming in and just sitting and
talking, remove any empty chairs. Place them outside your
office so they are available when needed but not too close
to the door that they can easily be dragged in when someone
Tip 9: Do people wait for you to get off a phone call?
Place a sign on the desk: "If I'm on a phone call, please
leave me a note. I'll check back with you as soon as I'm
off the phone."
An alternative: Train others in a silent hand code. Use
your fingers to indicate how long you are going to be. One
index finger explains that you will be off the phone in a
minute or two, please stay. Full hand with a wave says, "I
don't know how long and I'll get back to you." This silent
code allows you to continue your focus, acknowledges them,
and also allows them to make a decision on their time.
Tip 10: Many of these ways for handling interruptions at
work can also apply at home. Here is one that transfers
Name a "personal spot." An area you can call your own. It
can be a den, sewing room, shed, or an extra bedroom. This
means this spot makes you off limits to interruptions. If
you have children, explain to them what interruption means,
why you need some personal space, and give them the same
opportunity and courtesy.
Purchase a clock sign at the office supply store -- the same
type retailer's use on their front doors -- to indicate what
time you will be available again. Or you could add a white
board so they can write their note. Like college students
use on their dorm room doors. A magnetic board would work
well for younger or smaller children. Create magnets for
each family member that they can move to a spot already
written: "Bobby wants you."
The Other Side Of The Coin
The other side of this perspective is using interruptions to
boost productivity. People sometimes use interruptions to
push themselves into overdrive. This helps some people
while it disrupts others. This habit gets them to move past
their own procrastination habits to complete their tasks.
This need can also be an addictive behavior sometimes
disguised as "workaholicism."
(c) Copyright, Catherine Franz. All rights reserved.
About the Author: Catherine Franz, a eight-year Certified Professional Coach,
Graduate of Coach University, Mastery University, editor of
three ezines, columnist, author of thousands of articles