No one likes getting interrupted. It’s not just that you don’t get a chance to finish your thought–it’s also that whoever just cut you off has made it pretty clear they don’t think you’re saying anything valuable.
Women in particular have voiced this complaint, especially in workplaces dominated by men. In fact, researchers have found that around three-quarters of cross-gender interruptions are initiated by men. In their book Work with Me, Barbara Annis and John Gray argue that workplace interruptions reflect a conventionally “male” form of communicating. Many men toss their ideas around among one another, Amis and Gray write, as though they’re “passing a ball back and forth.”
Many people–both men and women–find this uncomfortable. Interrupting just seems rude. “Should I confront this bigger voice and look like the argumentative type?” they wonder. “Or should I smile and let it go—and confirm that I’m willing to be upstaged?”
There are a few simple strategies to avoid letting these situations get the better of you, but first it helps to understand the tricky double bind that women often counter at work when it comes to gender and communication.
According to career coach and author of The Politics of Promotion author Bonnie Marcus, women are more likely than men to use words and phrases that (unfairly) undermine their credibility. As she writes in a Forbes column, common expressions like “I just want to say” and tentative verb phrases like “I think” or “I feel like” can make it sound like you’re hedging. Even politely deferential remarks like “correct me if I’m wrong” can invite someone to avail themselves of that very opportunity and grab the conversation.
Researchers have also found that women tend to use unique verbal patterns, including “upspeak,” which makes statements sound like questions, and “vocal fry,” an affectation common among some younger women that turns words into back-of-the-throat rumbles, which may also win disrespectful behavior from others.
To be sure, none of these words, phrases, or vocal habits are any excuse for rude or sexist communication from anyone–men or women–and they’re hardly characteristic of, or exclusive to, all or even most women. What’s more, women who take the opposite approach and speak more forcefully risk being derided as “bitchy.” It isn’t fair, but the fact remains that language and communication are infused with gender stereotypes that threaten to undermine women’s authority at work from multiple directions.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to regain control after you’ve been interrupted.
Sometimes your very tone of voice can discourage interruptions in the first place. Speak with such confidence that it would take an additional effort–one that would actually feel jarring–for somebody to interject and cut you off. Avoid those tentative-sounding words and phrases, and don’t let your voice drop toward the end of your sentences. The idea is to send a message to your listeners that what you’re saying is important and deserves their attention.
Yes, getting interrupted is rude and in many cases there’s underlying sexism involved. But even while you acknowledge that, try not to take those interjections personally–or at least try not to show you do. If you sound annoyed or unsettled, everyone listening will know the interrupter has gotten the better of you. It isn’t easy (or fair that you have to), but the last thing you want is to show you’re ceding power to the moron who just cut you off. Stay composed and professional when you pick up your train of thought. Be assertive and stay focused on your message.
Don’t give way when you’re interrupted. Just keep talking, and intensify your voice if you have to, creating a virtual voiceover effect. Yes, that may feel impolite–but remember that you’re not talking over them, they’re talking over you. Since you were already speaking when the interrupter jumped in, you have the conversational “right of way.” So go ahead and finish your thought. Whoever interrupted you needs to know you have the strength to carry on. And others in the room will be more likely to respect you for it.
If you find the other person just keeps talking over you, pause and say you’d like to finish. Calmly interject, “Ken, I wasn’t quite finished” or try a firm, “Hold on.” You might even raise your hand, palm facing the interrupter, to show you’d like them to wait their turn.
You can do all that respectfully without apologizing; don’t say, “I’m sorry, but I’d like to finish” or even “please let me finish”–which gives the subtle impression that you’re asking permission. The words may sound sharp in your head, but if you use the right tone–firm yet composed–you’ll come across authoritative but unruffled. You can even memorize the phrase you like best to keep on hand for these situations.
Let’s say, despite your best efforts, your interrupter claims the stage. Once that person finishes, come back into the discussion and show you’re still on top of it. Comment on the other person’s views, expand upon them, and make it clear you’re a team player, no matter what behavior others toss around.
You want to show that you haven’t been undone by the interruption. Instead, you’re actually building upon the interruption, taking it into account in order to push the conversation forward. That demonstrates your confidence and leadership: You can rise above any lapses in decorum and still get things done.
Interruptions are unpleasant and can be damaging, particularly for professional women. But in the process of discouraging them, you can use those occasions to shine.