Competing for air-time is a professional sport. We compete to get our ideas heard, to win the argument, and to clarify our points. More often than not, people interrupt each other to maximize their air-time. (Presidential debates aside!)
There is a lot of research data out there to support the observation that when it comes to communication in the workplace, women talk less, get interrupted more, and have their ideas picked apart more often. There is additional data out there that supports the idea that when men speak up, they are thought of as more competent and when women speak up more they are thought of as less competent!
When women get interrupted and try to hold their ground, they are frequently labeled as aggressive, which, don’t kid yourself, is not meant as a compliment. Can women ‘keep the microphone’ and not end up on the losing end of the interaction?
A tactic that I observe, which is not effective, is to ask men to stop interrupting women. Interrupting women as they speak is not a problem for men, so demanding that men stop the behavior makes little sense. And it may be that for men, it’s not really about women as much as it is about competing for air-time.
However, shutting down women is shutting down a large percentage of the workforce, and I see that as a serious business problem, which in turn makes it everyone’s problem.
Is there really anything we can do about this?
Admit it: It’s is an organizational problem and therefore we all own it.
Call it out: We know it when we observe it, and hear it, so gently and firmly call it out when someone interrupts. Any group that meets can make an explicit rule about interruptions and then identify when the rule is not being observed by members.
Have a signal: Create a visible signal to indicate when it happens. For some people, the habit is so deeply ingrained that breaking it is not easy. The signal can be subtle (a hand up) or more overt (‘Hang on, she’s speaking’), but intercede. Some teams use a ‘talking stick’ and only the person holding the stick can talk. It might sound goofy, but you can get over that if it works.
Frankly, interruptions impact women more negatively than men, so here are some thoughts about what women can do:
Look like you mean it – Have good posture, gesture with palms down, and make eye contact.
Sound like you mean it – Make statements (‘I think’) and avoid asking questions or being tentative (What do you think…? I could be wrong but —)
Support other women – You don’t have to support another women’s ideas to support better treatment for your female colleagues. Women need to have each others back and not compete when it comes to how they are treated.
Have a male ally – A good strategic resource is a male who will back you up in a meeting, nod when you speak, support your ideas, and ask interrupters to hold off until you’ve finished your contribution. Men listen to other men.
It‘s true that talking directly, concisely, and confidently may not stop the interrupters, but it’s a good start. There is only just so much air-time to go around so create some sound strategies backed up by solid behaviors to ensure equal air-time for everyone.
It may not stop the interrupting behavior but it will challenge it – and that’s something we all can do.