Daily Herald January 25, 1992
Interrupting another person often creates conflict. We don't usually think we are interrupting. But nobody becomes more relaxed or friendly when it happens. It often ends up as a yelling match. There are some new and innovative, but easy, ways to cope with interruptions. But, and this is important, these techniques must be agreed upon in advance by all those involved.
One technique is to use a talking stick. Anything can be "the stick", even a yardstick, as long as everyone knows and agrees what it is. The person who holds the talking stick has the right to talk, and retains this right until he or she passes the stick to someone else. Others ask to talk by raising a hand, or some other mutually agreed upon signal. But they have to wait until the other person passes the talking stick before they say anything. Interrupting is not allowed. Holding the stick is your permission to open your mouth. This may seem like how school teachers may have handled us in elementary school. But the teacher acted as the talking stick then. Since we don't usually walk around with a teacher at our side, some prop, like a talking stick can be quite helpful.
Another way to control interruptions and control long-winded speakers is an egg timer. Once you flip over an egg timer, you know "egg-actly" how long you have left, i.e. until all the sand is gone from the top. A standard egg timer is three minutes, a minute longer than what I think is an ideal period for an advance warning.
As I found out years ago in Toastmasters, if you can't say what you want to say in two minutes, you may not have much to say. Perhaps the extra minute can be seen as bonus time. All those involved have to agree how to use the egg timer, otherwise time is wasted or you end up arguing. If you want to speak you turn over the egg-timer. That's ALL you do. You don't say a word. The person talking clearly sees their time going down the drain. When the last grain of sand falls through the neck of the egg timer, the person speaking stops. The person who flipped over the egg timer can now begin to talk. But anyone else, including the person who stopped talking, can immediately flip over the egg timer again, giving the new speaker a three minute warning.
Communication is the art of speaking and listening. The person speaking has to be sensitive to the reactions and needs of those listening. A talking stick or an egg timer may seem unnecessary. If that's the case, that's fine. That means everyone is able to effectively recognize the needs of others. But we aren't mind readers. We don't always know what others want. The props I've suggested provide a way to say what we want, without getting into personal battles and conflicts. And who knows, besides helping families avoid unnecessary tensions, a $1.29 egg timer might also improve the efficiency of many organizations and boards.