In the past few weeks, California senator Kamala Harris has emerged as a prominent voice in US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings. But if repeated interruptions from her male colleagues are any indication, some would prefer to keep her from using her voice quite so often.
Unfortunately, many women—even senators and Supreme Court justices—have to deal with a disproportionate amount of interruptions at work. It can be tricky figure out the right way to respond, particularly because there are a number of reasons why people interrupt one another—ranging from the innocuous to the outright sinister. Here are a few tips for identifying the most common kinds of interruptions, and how to deal with them appropriately.
Some interruptions are just a sign that you’ve effectively engaged your audience. But if your interrupter is demonstrating unbridled enthusiasm, you can still call it out in a non-judgmental way. First, validate their enthusiasm: “I’m glad you’re so invested in this. I’m just going to finish my overview so we can all be on the same page.” If the person interrupts again, reiterate the process: “I’m going to finish the overview and then everyone will have a chance to share their thoughts.”
If the person makes a habit of excited interruptions, find a private moment to provide feedback such as, “When you speak over me, it throws me off my game” or “it sends the signal that you’re not confident in me.” Over-exuberance is annoying and can reduce your authority, but it comes from a positive place. Be glad it’s not a…
More concerning are people who interrupt because they lack emotional control. If your interrupter is being defensive and cutting you off to start an argument, don’t take the bait. Start by making sure the interrupter knows he was talking out of turn, and say, “I’m going to finish my point and then we can talk about your concern.” If that quick jolt doesn’t cause him to sit back and wait his turn, you’re better off deferring. “Okay John, you’re concerned that we’re not taking a tough enough stance. What do you propose?”
Once you’ve heard him out and asked at least a couple of questions to understand, then you can return to your point. “You’re worried that if we don’t react strongly to this, we’ll see more aggressiveness from our suppliers. I’m concerned that our relationship hangs by a thread and we need to tread lightly. How can we send a strong signal that this isn’t okay without driving key suppliers away?” If your interrupter is agitated, the best course of action is to let him get his thoughts out first. Once he feels you’re listening, he’ll be more open to hearing what you have to say. Unless, of course, your interrupter is making a…
Then there are people who strategically interrupt—with the goal of putting you on defense and throwing you off your game. If anything in the other person’s tone, body language, or context suggests you’re being interrupted by a bully, none of your constructive, polite tactics are going to do you any good. You need to respond to strength with strength.
Don’t yield when you are interrupted; keep talking. If anything, lower your volume a little so others will have to strain to hear you. Make prolonged eye contact first with the interrupter and then with any powerful or supportive people in the room. If these approaches create the space for you to finish, stop there.
If you’re still getting interrupted, appeal to the good judgment of the rest of the audience. Strongly, emphatically say something that indicates you believe in your point and won’t back down: “I am talking about the single most important customer we have. We have an obligation to discuss this issue fully.” In this case, use a forceful tone and strong body language.
If you know you’ll be dealing with the power play again, look for allies and enlist their support and assistance before and after your interactions with the interrupter. Ask for their help to ensure that important issues get a full hearing.
In all of these cases, remember that the interruption isn’t about you. The power play is about the bully’s fragile ego and inability to win by following the rules. The emotional outburst is about the interrupter’s lack of self-control. The over-exuberant interruption is about the excitement associated with the topic at hand. Remembering that it’s not personal will help you remain calm and polite. Do not back down or use tentative language such as, “May I finish?” or “I’m sorry, but.” And while open body language—such as smiling and sitting in a relaxed position—works well in many contexts, it’s better to avoid in these situations, lest you appear passive.
There is one caveat to all of this advice: It may not go over well with your audience. Because of ingrained sexism, people often get annoyed with women who are determined to make their points. That’s not how things should be, but that’s how it is. Thankfully, women like Sen. Harris have the courage to make sure their voices get heard.