Why It’s OK to Interrupt Others and Reclaim Your Voice

Today is International Women’s Day.

It is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, heighten awareness about women’s equality and gender parity and fundraise for female-focused charities.

I recently heard one of the most powerful women of her time, Dr. Madeline K. Albright, speak at the William Blair Inspiring Women series.

In 1997, Dr. Albright was named the first female Secretary of State and became, at that time, the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

Listening to her remarkable accomplishments as a diplomat, professor, author, and businesswoman was inspiring and timely.

When asked about the strategies Dr. Albright used to persuade, inspire and change minds, I was struck by her answer.

She learned to interrupt. And she taught others how to interrupt.

As one of the only women in the room, Dr. Albright realized her voice was often drowned out by her male counterparts.

As a professor at Georgetown University, Dr. Albright noticed women were often not called on, even when their hands were raised.

So Dr. Albright created a new rule in her classes – no raising hands. To speak, students had to closely follow the conversation, and interrupt when they had something to add. Classes became unruly at times, but it worked.

Women are often taught to be polite, wait and take turns. But sometimes it’s ok to jump in and talk over people. And other times the only way to be heard and complete a thought is to stand firm and keep others from interrupting. 

How To Be an Effective Interrupter

  • Read the room. Is this a group of peers interrupting to impress the boss? Is it a team of extroverts who mean no harm, but are energized by a passionate conversation? Or are cultural biases at play that need to be called out?
  • Speak with strong, decisive language. Beware of language that undermines your credibility. Watch for apologetic or overly polite phrases such as “May I” , “Excuse me” or “Sorry.Instead, use words that emit clarity, specificity, directness.
  • Contribute, don’t derail. Actively listen, follow the conversation closely and interject to build on ideas. “I’d like to add something here …” or “Here’s what I’m seeing …” or “Great point, Syd. My experience is …”

Strategies to Deal with Interrupters

  • Keep talking. Complete your thought without pausing for the interrupter. They will often get the message and let you finish.
  • Be direct and maintain control. “Lou. Hold on. I’m not quite finished with my point. (continue)” Or “Lou. We’ll get to your point in a minute. (continue)”
  • Acknowledge and carry on. “Sam, I want to hear from you. But, let me finish and then we’ll have time to discuss. Thanks.” (continue)
  • Intervene on someone’s behalf who was interrupted. “Jamie, what were you trying to say earlier?”
  • Set expectations up front. “I welcome your feedback once I am finished speaking.” 

How do you address interruptions and build an energized, respectful and inclusive culture where everyone is heard?

What strategies work for you?

 

Marta Steele is a Partner at PeopleResults. She often practices her interrupting skills and techniques for managing interrupters at the dinner table with her husband and teenage sons.

Marta Steele