When People Interrupt

The problem we saw in tonight’s presidential debate is familiar to any mediator: How do you keep angry people from interrupting each other? Chris Wallace demonstrated clearly tonight that good journalists are not necessary good facilitators!

There’s actually a fairly simple solution. You have to establish a ground rule at the beginning – no interruptions. And you have to enforce it, not after four, five, or six interruptions, but the very first time it happens.

You need to stop the proceedings cold, right there, turn physically towards the interrupter and speak directly and firmly: “Mr. Trump, our ground rule is no interruptions, and we won’t be able to proceed if people don’t stick to it. I need your commitment to support the process. Can you give it?” And then you need to wait silently for the interrupter to give it. In 35 years of mediation and facilitation, I’ve never had a client refuse to do so.

I’ve trained thousands of mediators and seen that the tendency for most mediators, like Chris Wallace tonight, is the opposite. They ignore interruptions at first, hoping they will go away. But they don’t. One interruption will always be followed by more.

Parties size up very quickly whether they can get away with ignoring rules or not. If you give them several experiences of squeezing in their interruptions unrebuked, they see that the rule isn’t really serious, and the problem gets worse and worse.

Once the rule is clearly established – it rarely takes more than one or two interventions like the above – the parties tend to accept the guardrail and behave. You can in fact ease up on strictness later and allow some back and forth without losing control – IF you’ve established the norm early.


11 thoughts on “When People Interrupt

  1. Georgia Daniels

    I don’t think that Mr. Trump would abide by a “no interrupting” ground rule. It is my #1 rule, but what do you do when one party refuses to abide by any rules? I, personally, would stop the mediation, but Mr. Wallace was in a tough spot. Throwing the President of the United States off the stage for failure to abide by a rule? That’s a tough call. Breaking all the rules is his signature trademark.

  2. Greg Gornik

    Child Discipline 101 –
    Who would have thought that the President of the United States needed four-year-old discipline ?

  3. James Hardegree

    Ron, thank you for this. However, another thing to learn from last night was the importance of choosing the right moderator, facilitator, or mediator. And last night you had the wrong moderator, as Mr. Wallace could not “get out of the way”. At times he wanted to debate and he could not remove the journalist in him. While there may not have been a winner in this first debate, Mr. Wallace was certainly the loser. Hopefully, next time they will choose the right person.

  4. David B. Miller

    Thanks for this blogpost! Making the fiasco last night’s “debate” into a teaching tool was constructive and timely.

    Ron – perhaps you should call Steve Scully (C-Span) and Kristen Welker (NBC News), moderators for the remaining two debates; they may want to offer you their roles. 🙂


  5. Riverhouse epress Post author

    I don’t know the terms of Wallace’s agreement with the parties previously.   I’m a Monday Monday Quarterback here!  That said, there’s two things I think might have worked:
    1) After several interruptions, address both parties (since Biden also was interrupting, although not nearly as much):  “Gentlemen, you’re not observing the ground rule about not interrupting.  I need to ask you to recommit to it before we continue, because it’s pointless otherwise.   Mr. Trump, will you commit to this ground rule?   Mr. Biden?”    If they will not commit, then take a break, meet with them privately, and if they will not commit there, end the debate.
    2) Use of silence to underscore the authority of the facilitator.   If they again interrupt, stop and rebuke the interrupter.   On the second rebuke, add silence: “Mr. Trump, you committed to supporting the ground rule of not interrupting.  You seem to be having great difficulty with this.  I want to take a 30 second pause now for you to consider whether you can indeed observe this rule, because I will need to bring this to a close if you do not.”  Then sit in 30 seconds of silence, which is eternity in that setting!   If there is still nonsense after that, end the session.  That’s drastic, but handled in that way the responsibility will clearly reside on the shoulders of the interrupter.

  6. Graham Salinger

    This is interesting. At times the debate did seemed like one party to a conflict interrupting another during uninterrupted time. I recall Chris Wallace stating the rules at the start; two minutes of uninterrupted time followed by response. I also recall that at some point when Trump interrupted Chris Wallace reminded him that each campaign agreed to ground rules ahead of time. I think it was just too late and that the tone had already been set. What was interesting was when Wallace tried to redirect back to the rules Trump made some snide remark about how he felt like he was debating the moderator , it reminded me of a party challenging a mediator as a tactic to try to get them to advocate more for them. At one point Chris Wallace was also yelling over them trying to get their attention and said ” I hate to raise my voice, but why should I be any different than you”. That to me was the sign that he had lost control of his power as moderator and control of the debate because trying to match Trumps aggressiveness only escalated the situation. I don’t envy Wallace or Biden, but it was an interesting case study.

  7. Christa M. Tinari

    This is good advice about how to stop interruptions and reinforce agreed-upon groundrules in general. An additional key point is whether or not the mediator/moderator holds any power to end the debate (or move to separate meetings or shuttle diplomacy) if the participants refuse to follow the groundrules. Although most mediators have this power and indeed state it ahead of time, I suspect that Chris Wallace did NOT have this power. Aware of the limitations of his role, I imagine he hesitated to reinforce the groundrules and potentially terminate the “debate”rather quickly. It’s reasonable for him to guess that Trump would state he would agree to the groundrules while still continuing to break them (as evidenced by his actual behavior last night, since he had previously agreed to the groundrules prior to getting on stage.) Normally, if this occurs, the mediator would end the debate alltogether, seeing that a participant or participants are unable or unwilling to follow the terms. Without this option, Mr. Wallace’s options to enforce the groundrules were limited.

  8. Abdullahi Isack

    when you want reconciliation of two party they must accepted your third role and accepted conflict resolution before start debates even your self must have good understanding of what cause this conflict any conflict has type style any dispute has root cause if resource cause religious color language locate any any when two party accepted first you bush back both groups you create cold situation and long distance between groups

  9. Mary Lou Addor

    My understanding of the debate process is that the rules are agreed to by both parties prior to the actual debate. And if one party doesn’t accept one of the rules there’s no agreement. If that is the case it might be very difficult for a moderator to establish their own ground rules in a situation like this or is it? If there’s not going to be a debate where either party can be heard it might make more sense to have them separated and respond to the questions particularly if there aren’t any substantial ground rules for a moderator to use when they need to do so and the audience is aware of the ground rules.

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