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Researchers Identify Nine Types of Human Interruptions in Conversations

Dr. John Kane

Cogito researchers analyze millions of calls to better understand how humans communicate in the workplace.

Here at Cogito, we are leaders in the field of augmented intelligence, providing real-time coaching to call center agents and supervisors in order to help consistently improve the efficiency and connectedness of call center interactions. Our development and on-going improvement of this technology involve our machine learning and data science teams working with unprecedented volumes of call center telephone conversations (captured via secure and compliant processing means with prior acknowledgment of all recorded parties). The availability of millions of hours of conversational data enables us to not only develop robust machine learning algorithms but also to produce novel insights on conversational patterns. In this blog, we identify nine unique types of overlapping and interrupting speaking behaviors that can produce widely different conversational experiences for customer’s calling into enterprise call centers. 

Some of our recent research honed in on turn-taking dynamics and in particular the phenomena of overlapping and interrupting speech. Our findings indicate that overlapping speech is more nuanced than it first appears. Certain overlapping speaking behaviors, e.g., backchannels active listening utterances like “yeah” or “uh-huh”, can have a very positive impact on the sentiment of a conversation. On the other hand, one party barging in during certain kinds of pauses can be perceived very negatively. Based on our research (which considers extensive data analysis and a review of previous studies from 2012, 2016 and 2018) we propose nine classes of overlapping/interrupting speech.

Here are the nine distinct classes which we are proposing and which we are actively using as part of the on-going development of our technology:


  • Smooth transition – Both speakers are able to finish their turn, without interference. There may be a small overlap but starting early did not affect the conversation. This is a somewhat neutral conversational style but is useful for call center agents to default to as part of providing a professional service.


  • Collaborative overlap – One person starts talking before the other finishes and because of this, the person who was speaking first has to alter what they were going to say or even stop speaking prematurely. In personal and social conversations this kind of behavior can help improve the efficiency of the information flow. However, in a professional context, this kind of overlapping can be risky and can produce unintended negative perceptions in the mind of the person initially speaking.


  • Competitive overlap – One person starts speaking before the other finishes and the interruption is not welcome. This interruption can sound competitive, meaning that the first person is reluctant to stop talking because, for example, they disagree or the conversation changes course. This is the quintessential interruption type and is a behavior that should be actively discouraged in a professional context.


  • Collaborative pause overlapA person may pause during a conversation and wants to continue, but before they can, a second person starts speaking. Here, the original speaker lets the other person continue, making the interaction sound collaborative or neutral. This class is very similar to the “collaborative overlap” class above, in terms of how it is perceived by parties in the conversation, although it is produced without the two parties speaking at the same time. As a result, the same risk of unintended negative perceptions still applies.


  • Competitive pause overlap Similar to “ Collaborative pause overlap,” a person might pause in conversation but before they continue, the other person starts talking. In this case, the original speaker may or may not attempt to interrupt themselves. This class is typically perceived as a negative “competitive overlap” even though the two parties are not speaking at the same time. Interestingly, former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was often perceived to negatively interrupt her conversation partners (see this study for example). However, a detailed acoustic analysis found that she rarely spoke at the same time as the other person, but because her responses were so prompt (below typical perceptual reaction times) they were perceived as interruptions.


  • Speaking butting-in One person is talking and another begins with the intent of taking over the conversation, however, the original person continues to talk regardless. In a professional context, like a call center interaction, phone professionals should refrain from this behavior to ensure a professional and compassionate experience for the caller.


  • Pause butting-in In this instance a person pauses during a conversation, and the other begins to talk, but the original speaker continues on with their thoughts. The second person stops talking and allows the other to continue. This varies from “competitive pause overlap” in that the original speaker is the one that carries on talking. Again, in a professional context, it is important to recognize that a customer pausing or taking a breath does not mean that they have finished their thought.


  • Backchanneling Similar to “speaking butting-in,” one person chimes into the conversation, but the intent is not to take over the conversation. This might include them saying anything, as long as it is said in a way that allows the original speaker to continue (examples include “yeah”, “uh-huh”, “oh really?”). Backchanneling, also known as “active listening”, can be a useful conversation strategy for phone professionals to let the caller know that they follow and understand what they are saying. Remember, on a standard telephone call we do not have visual cues available and so our voice is the only means of signaling to our conversation partner to keep going. At the same time, however, in a professional context, it is advised to be sparing with the frequency of backchannels so as not to distract or overwhelm the other caller. Additionally, it is important to be aware of the cultural context of the conversation – for instance, in Japan, the frequency of backchannels is typically much higher than in the USA (see this 1989 study).


  • Accidental overlap – After a prolonged silence both people might start talking at the same time, but eventually one of them gives up and one carries on the conversation. These kinds of “mistakes” are common in both social and professional contexts. For phone professionals, it is advised to kindly yield the floor to the caller.


It is clear from these classes and their descriptions that overlapping speech/ interruptions are a more complex phenomenon than one might imagine. For phone professionals in a call center context, it is important to be aware that jumping in during pauses can still give the caller a negative impression. Also, the right level of active listening and backchannel feedback can help the caller know that they are being heard and understood, thereby improving the efficiency and connectedness of the interaction.

While humans are innately primed to pick up on behavioral cues expressed within a conversation; fatigue, stress and cognitive overload – particularly in the workplace – it can make detecting and properly acting on these cues more difficult. These nine classes of overlapping speech highlight the complexity of human interactions, particularly that which is limited to voice. But with AI-based technologies like Cogito, we become more aware and in tune with or communication patterns, and how to respond to them, more than ever before.

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