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You’ve been waiting for the right moment to voice an opinion in a meeting, but you’re struggling to get a word in. Finally, you notice a break in the conversation, take a deep breath and start speaking — only for your colleague to interrupt you. With your train of thought lost, you sit quietly and fume.
It can be easy to accidentally talk over someone in a meeting, particularly if you miss the social cues that indicate someone is about to speak. And as many of us have found out in the last few months, it can be far harder to read people’s body language on a video call.
Being intentionally interrupted, however, is infuriating — and it’s a problem that disproportionately affects women.
Research suggests women in particular are likely to be talked over in the workplace. The annual McKinsey and LeanIn.org Women in the Workplace report, which in 2019 surveyed 329 companies and more than 68,000 employees, found that half of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38% had others take credit for their ideas.
In another study, Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll found that when male executives spoke more often, they were perceived to be more competent. By comparison, when female executives spoke more often, they were given lower competence ratings.
“As an ex-management consultant I’m very used to having to hold a meeting room in a male dominated environment,” says Sarah Stoddart Burrows, career change specialist at Thrive Coaching. “The conclusion I came to was that women, unfairly, are expected to be significantly higher performers than the average man to be taken as seriously which includes how they chair, or speak up at, meetings.”
Interruptions seem less important than other gender inequalities women face at work, but being talked over can have a significant impact on confidence.
“Most of the women I work with suffer from imposter syndrome, even those that appear very confident, capable and successful from the outside,” Burrows says. “I believe this is often down to ‘a million paper cuts’ that women are subject to over a lifetime that imply women are ‘less than’ which includes being interrupted and talked over.”
Done on a regular basis, interrupting women implies that their contributions aren’t welcome or valid. “This is just one of the more subtle, but no less frustrating or pervasive, behaviours that can build up to a toxic workplace environment,” she adds. “All told, what seems to be a relatively minor infraction is symptomatic of a wider cultural problem that results in women dropping out of corporate life.”
Of course, the onus shouldn’t be on women to stop themselves being interrupted. But if you find yourself being spoken over in meetings often, there are some steps you can take.
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When you raise a point in a meeting, get to the point and be direct. It can help to take notes that outline what you want to say, particularly if you are nervous about public speaking.
“Not only does this leave less opportunity for someone to interrupt you but direct, concise points display clarity of thought which engenders confidence and trust in your abilities,” Burrows says.
Deal with interrupters swiftly
Being forceful doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but politely and firmly re-asserting your authority when being interrupted is important.
“It can work well to say something along the lines of ‘Hold that thought for a second Roger, I want to finish my point’ or simply ‘Sorry Julie, I was speaking, we can come to you in a second’ in an authoritative tone of voice,” Burrows says.
Trying to be assertive in meetings can also deter people from speaking over you in the future, too. “Cultivate a reputation for managing meetings strictly when you are the chair which includes keeping people focused on the agenda and being action-oriented. If it’s not your natural demeanour then try channelling a little ‘strict headmistress’.”
Having friends at work isn’t just about being able to do the coffee run with someone — it’s about having an ally in the workplace who can back you up too.
“This is one area where other people can support you, simply by noticing that you have been interrupted and directing the conversation back to you,” Burrows explains. “If it doesn’t happen naturally then consider recruiting allies ahead of your meeting for repeat offenders.”
Try not to worry about what other people think
When a repeat interrupter talks over you, it’s likely that they aren’t taking your feelings into consideration. So while it is easier said than done, trying to stop caring about what people think can work in your favour.
“A huge issue in this area is that women who are assertive by, for example, dealing with interruptions are perceived as being less competent,” says Burrows. “So, women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to being assertive. My only advice is to stop caring what other people think because the alternative will only lead to frustration and constantly second-guessing yourself.”