Immediately after the recent U.S. Democratic debates, newspapers and social media ran commentaries observing how much more often the male candidates, vs. the female, interrupted other panelists and the moderators (especially on the first night). Because of those interruptions, the men commanded much more airtime over the course of the debates. The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Inc. Magazine were just a few media we read that took a closer look at that gender phenomenon. Then there was the Los Angeles Times, which didn’t mince words with this headline: “Democratic debates mirror life: Men yell and interrupt. Women (mostly) wait their turn.”
Of course, not all men dominate conversations and not all women shy away from a good, dynamic dialogue. But this age-old gender gap is still prevalent enough to command the news in 2019.
Because we’re in the communication business, we’ve seen how some women in the workplace make themselves invisible by being too polite, hesitant to jump into the conversation fray, worried they’ll be seen as “too pushy” if they press a point, and at a loss as to how to deal with chronic interrupters. Tellingly, countless women have told us, “It seems like I get interrupted in meetings more than the men do.” Well, they’re right. There’s lots of research that says they do.
That said, what is the best way to deal with interruptions and make sure you are heard?
Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, offered tips in a Harvard Business Review article titled, “How to Handle Interrupting Colleagues.” Here are a few excerpts:
Preempt the interrupter. Before you start talking, preview what you plan to say and stipulate when it’s okay to break in. Workplace consultant Laura Rose suggests saying, ‘There are a lot of different pieces to this explanation, so please bear with me. I want to tell you the entire story. Then I want us to wrap around and get your thoughts on specific details.’ This type of preview may stop the interrupter before he or she starts.
Hold a constructive, private conversation. If the interruptions continue, speak to the person in private. Give the interrupter the benefit of the doubt … they may not realize their tendency to interrupt. Talk to the person about what you’ve observed and for how long, and explain how it affects you (and others, if appropriate). This straight talk, when framed constructively, is more likely to produce a behavioral change.
Enlist the group. If you’d prefer to avoid embarrassing the interrupter, you can address the whole group without pointing fingers. Ask the group to reflect on whether you are communicating effectively together and what could be improved. This strategy would allow every member, including you, to raise their awareness of challenges facing the group, a first important step in addressing problems like this one.
We would offer a few more tactics:
Speak early. When you're in a meeting and you say nothing for most of it, it's hard to build the momentum to chime in later. If you look over the agenda in advance, you can think about what your positions are, and what you know about the topic that would be helpful to the group. PowerSpeaking Master Trainer Sarah Palmer describes what can happen if you go into a meeting without a focus: “In the early days of my career, the advice to ‘speak up at meetings’ didn’t help, as I had no idea which of the 100 thoughts in my head at any one point should be shared!” Plan some thoughtful ideas or input in advance so you’re prepared to participate—and be heard—early on.
Stand your ground. If you’re interrupted, don’t be timid about saying something like, “Please let me finish what I was saying so everyone is clear about the point I’m making.” Said in a tone that sounds more like collaboration than confrontation, it’s a direct yet inclusive way to be heard.
Support others who are being interrupted. If you’re in a meeting and a coworker repeatedly tries to contribute an idea but keeps getting interrupted, speak up. You might say, “I’d like to pick up on what Jane was saying,” or “Let’s listen to Jane’s idea because I’d like us to consider it further.” If you model effective ways to deal with interruptions and include everyone at the table, you’re teaching a valuable lesson.
One parting suggestion: When you want to speak, please don’t raise your hand and wait for someone to call on you (unless you’re in a huge auditorium). If you watched the first night of the Democratic debates, you might have noticed that the women—candidates for President of the United States, mind you—frequently raised their hands and waited for a moderator to call on them. And the men? Not so much. They just started talking.
So, just remember that you’re not in the fifth grade anymore. When you want to speak, just use your voice.
Your experiences or thoughts on the issue? We’d love to hear them.
Last year we launched Confident Speaking for Women, a three-hour, intensive, interactive workshop that helps women become more confident, effective speakers. To learn more about it, click here.
Here are the upcoming workshops:
- Confident Speaking for Women: August 13, 2019 (9AM - 12PM) in San Francisco, CA
- Confident Speaking for Women: August 22, 2019 (9AM - 12PM) in Santa Clara, CA
- Confident Speaking for Women: October 1, 2019 (9AM - 12PM) in London, UK
To register for Confident Speaking for Women or any of our other Open Public workshops, click here.
Speaking of women learning to become more confident communicators, we invite you to download our free whitepaper, Circles of Light: Women’s Wisdom, in which female leaders we interviewed during the development of our workshop, Confident Speaking for Women, share powerful stories and advice.
On the journey with you,
The PowerSpeaking Team