Communication Experts’ Advice for Handling Trump’s Interruptions

A photo illustration of images of Trump's mouth superimposed over Biden's face
Getty / The Atlantic

The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, which took place near the end of last month, was an incoherent mess, with Trump interrupting Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace, incessantly. “I’m just sad with the way last night turned out,” Wallace told a reporter the following day.

In advance of the second, and final, presidential debate, scheduled for tonight, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a rule change to try to tamp down on interruptions: During each candidate’s allotted two minutes for opening statements on each of six topics, his opponent’s microphone will be muted.

That modification doesn’t seem like it will be enough to rein Trump in. Both candidates spoke over each other during the first debate, but according to a Washington Post tally, Trump accounted for more than three-quarters of the 90-plus times someone onscreen was interrupted. Tonight’s alternating two-minute mutings will be followed by longer periods—the majority of the debate—during which both mics will be on and Trump will effectively be able to carry on as he did last time. (He may well do so even when he’s muted, and Biden may well hear him, whether viewers are able to or not.)

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Even with the commission’s additional declaration that “time taken up during any interruptions will be returned to the other candidate,” Trump’s interjections seem inevitable, leaving Biden with the unpleasant task of deciding how best to respond to them. This week, I asked several communication experts what they’d advise Biden to say and do if they were on his debate-prep team. They didn’t share any magic words—on the whole, they were pessimistic about Biden’s ability to stop Trump’s interruptions—but they did have some ideas.

In everyday conversation, it can be helpful to talk about the effect someone’s interruptions have on you, according to Norah Dunbar, a communication professor at UC Santa Barbara. She suggested saying something like “I feel you don’t respect my opinion when you interrupt me before I’m done talking.” When she herself is interrupted, Dunbar prefers to use a bit of tension-lowering self-deprecation, along the lines of “Let me finish my thought, or else I might forget it in a few minutes!”

While Dunbar thought those particular suggestions wouldn’t be of much use in a combative context such as a debate, some of the experts’ tips applied both to political confrontations and more mundane interactions. One was to “step outside the frame” of the conversation by remarking on the interrupter’s communication patterns, as suggested by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. So in a debate scenario, perhaps Biden could say something like “Why are you talking over me? Are you afraid to let people hear what I have to say?” “I do wonder if … calling attention to what Trump is doing might throw Trump off,” Tannen said.

Another potentially effective strategy is to try cutting the interrupter out of the conversation, denying them the attention they desire. This is something that Biden did occasionally during the first debate, by turning toward the camera and addressing viewers directly. “The full shift in body position, eye position, tone, etc., really excluded Trump from the conversation,” said Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business who studies workplace communication. He’d recommend more of this: “In a case where it may be impossible to deter someone determined to be a bully from interrupting—only the rules of the game (set up by the debate commission), enforced by the official (the moderator) can do that—Biden could continue to focus on connecting with viewers.”

Whatever responses Biden settles on, he should be careful about not overusing them. “I wouldn’t think that pointing [an interruption] out every time would be effective, nor would just ignoring it,” Dunbar said. “Once or twice, he can make note of it, but other than that, he needs to just [keep talking]—otherwise, he looks weak in comparison to Trump.” Dunbar thinks that Biden is in a difficult position, because his “brand is reasonableness, and he has spent considerable effort to portray himself as a listener, but he also can’t afford to look weak next to Trump’s domineering style.”

Overall, the experts I consulted thought that there was little Biden could do to prevent Trump from interrupting during the debate. “The goal of getting him to stop … is probably impossible,” Tannen told me, “so [Biden’s] actual goal will probably be to walk the fine line between standing up to the bully and not alienating potential voters—the only viewers who count—who might throw up their hands and decide not to vote, with a plague-on-both-your-houses reaction, if Biden responds in kind.”

Indeed, Trump’s previous interruptions seemed to have hurt him: In a New York Times/Siena College survey conducted shortly after the first debate, 65 percent of likely voters in the tightly contested states of Florida and Pennsylvania said they disapproved of Trump’s onstage behavior, versus 37 percent who disapproved of Biden’s.

Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, had some success in fending off the (somewhat milder) interruptions of Vice President Mike Pence by using a different tactic. In their debate two weeks ago, on three occasions, Harris responded to a Pence interjection with a firm, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” To Tannen, this was a savvy navigation of a “double bind” that female candidates face—“if she’s forceful, she’s ‘too aggressive’; if she isn’t, she’s ‘not leaderlike’”—which was effective because it was a “self-statement,” as opposed to a command like “Let me finish.” Tannen wouldn’t advise that Biden use that line, though. “It would be [seen as] laughably weak” for a man to say that, and to Trump, she said.

Dunbar told me that different situations call for different responses to interruptions, and drew a distinction between “collaborative” contexts and “competitive” ones such as a debate. Conflicts in everyday conversations among friends or at work can still lead to win-win outcomes, she noted, but the competitive nature of a presidential debate doesn’t lend itself to conflict resolution. The candidates vie to win, and—during this year’s debates, at least—the viewers lose.