Woman Interrupted: Strategies for Getting a Word in Edgewise
The unfortunate phenomenon of men interrupting women has been getting a lot of press lately.
Whether it’s Senator Kamala Harris being interrupted twice on the congressional floor this past June, or the Facebook Live post that went viral and made #LetLizSpeak a rallying cry, or the recent New York Times article about this epidemic: the constant interruptions women face while trying to speak need to stop.
This concept is not new - nor is it strictly political. Who can forget when Kanye stormed the stage and hijacked Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Awards? It was the “Imma let you finish” heard round the world. (Yes, that really was 9 years ago.)
As vocal coaches who help people create a deeper understanding of what effective communication really looks like (and train women to use their voice as a powerful tool for expression and connection), my co-founder Julie and I are confronted with this daily request from women, at Vital Voice:
“How do I avoid being interrupted - and how can I jump in when I need to?”
There is a lot of advice out there for women on how to use your voice (some good, some . . . not so good), so we’d like to offer our perspective as voice and communication coaches, honed through both our own experiences and our clients’. Here is our advice on how to manage interruptions to ensure they are not getting in the way of your career, development or even your emotional health.
We’ve broken it down into 3 distinct parts: 1- understanding your own situation better; 2- solid tactics for stopping the interruptions; 3- the added bonus of how to interrupt when it’s called for.
How to analyze the situation
It helps to try and understand where this interruption is coming from. Can you read the other person’s motive in interrupting you? Different styles require different reactions -- which is why, as a voice coach, I hate most “tips and tricks” articles or blanket statements about how women should talk. There is WAY too much nuance in communication for one-size-fits all solutions!
1) Status/Power - One of the ways in which actors analyze a theatrical scene is to look at the status differences between the characters. Who is in charge here? How do people interact with that person? Are the people in the meeting nervous or at ease? Perhaps feeling like they need to suck up? Are people interrupting others to display their own power or demonstrate dominance?
2) Habit/Personality - Full disclosure: I myself am known as an interrupter. In my case, it mostly comes from growing up in an enthusiastic, talkative, extroverted family where interruptions and parenthetical comments and cross conversations are the norm. I have worked very hard to be more conscious of these habits, but I still mess up. (It’s nothing personal!) If you are dealing with a “benevolent/oblivious interrupter” like me, just keep plowing - or consider speaking with us in private to tell us how you feel. We'll get the hint, and likely be more embarrassed that we interrupted you than upset that you interrupted us back. And if you’re an interrupter, put some extra brain cells toward making sure YOU are not the elephant in the room!
3) Culture/Unconscious Bias - As has been repeatedly documented (such as in that NY Times piece), “manterrupting” is a very real and pervasive phenomenon. In addition, we’re dealing with a culture of impossible double-binds for women when they DO manage to get a word in: we’re often told “don’t be too aggressive but don’t be too soft either! Don’t be too emotional, but for heaven’s sake, no one likes an ice queen!” Kamala Harris was “hysterical.” Hillary Clinton was “shrill.” Elizabeth Warren was given a warning . . . you get the picture. We could unpack this stuff all day long, but it’s out there, and it affects both how you are seen and heard, and how people respond to you. We need an awareness of the possible consequences -- good and bad -- for standing up for yourself and others, and the bravery to handle it.
I do believe very strongly that the MORE women speak up, stand out, and call out interruptions, the easier it becomes for others to do so and the more we have to examine the cultural factors that cause this in the first place. We’re making unconscious bias conscious so that we can change it! So here are a few strategies to help you:
How to handle being interrupted:
1) The direct response: “I wasn't quite finished with my point - (dive back in).” How you deliver this depends on what kind of interrupter you are dealing with. If the interruption is coming from a place of enthusiasm or obliviousness, humor and pleasantness is your friend. (And ladies, I’m NOT telling you to smile, but here is where a genuine, unforced smile can actually go a long way.) However, if you are dealing with a bully who will only respond to an equal show of force, it’s time to marshal your inner badass and say it simply and directly.
"The MORE women speak up, stand out, and call out interruptions, the easier it becomes for others to do so."
2) The compliment and recover: 'Great point! Now (back to what you were saying)' This falls into the category of “gender judo” for me - people expect women to be pleasant and nurturing? Sure, you can give them a taste of that!
3) The team approach “Amy - it seems like you have more to say on that. (Ask related question)” If you are uncomfortable intervening on your own behalf, sometimes the best way to practice is to help someone else who is being interrupted! The women in Obama’s White House found this wing woman approach to be an effective tactic, both when being interrupted or when they needed to reinforce and amplify the point that a friend made in the room. Here’s how it works: When one woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it, and give credit to the originator. This technique -- which they dubbed “amplification” -- made an idea harder to ignore or steal. Recruit a partner in the room to do this for you, and do it for a colleague.
4) The empathetic approach - Here’s how it works: “I hear what you’re saying, Steve.” (Give some reiteration of his point - then finish your statement.) Sometimes the quickest way to turn an interrupter into an ally, or to disarm a bully, is to make them feel seen and heard.
5) The boss approach - “We'll get to that/your idea/your point in a second. (Continue yourself, or throw to the person who had been interrupted.)” This one is for when you are facilitating the meeting. Not only are you EXPECTED to be in control here, you can help create the kind of meeting culture that you want to see in the world!
How to interrupt if you must:
There are certain office cultures where you are expected to be a dynamic part of the conversation, and there are certain teams where the only way you'll get a word in is by diving in headfirst.
The most important part of ALL of the following scripts is physicality and breath: Practice letting yourself really sit in your chair. Our standard advice to clients is “let your butt be big” - seriously, it works. Make a deliberate postural shift to draw attention to yourself (in theater we call this “pulling focus”), take a full inhale (not the little catch breath we sometimes take when we want to jump in), and speak on the exhale with energy and confidence. It's less about volume than it is about a full connection with your body and breath, and the ability to land your words on the intended listener.
Here are some options:
1) “I'd like to jump in on that.”
2) “I've been doing some research and here's what I'm seeing.”
3) “What a great point Mark! My observation is that . . .”
The Last Word
Try these tips out next time you get Kanye'd; not only will you be using your voice to make an impact, but you’ll also be teaching the offenders that you won’t be silenced.
A final note: All of us -- interrupters and interruptees, men and women, introverts and extroverts alike -- can work to create a conscious meeting culture where voices and ideas get heard. Conversation is a dance: stay experimental, observe what works and feels right for YOU, and keep practicing!