Few people enjoy being interrupted during group discussions, and for good reason. Beyond feeling frustrating or demoralizing, the experience of colleagues chronically cutting you off in meetings may damage your career advancement, according to leadership trainer Tania Luna.
“We associate participation with power,” says Luna, a partner at LifeLabs Learning, whose team facilitates development workshops on topics like bias reduction and effective management for companies such as Warby Parker, Lyft, Sony Music, and Salesforce. She notes a “vicious cycle” where those who feel disproportionately interrupted in meetings participate less, making it harder to be seen for the unique value you bring. Meanwhile, those who speak up (and perhaps also interrupt) may bolster their visibility and gain access to other career-advancing conversations, projects, and promotions.
Here are a few approaches Luna recommends putting into play before, during, and after meetings if regular interruptions are getting you down.
Know the Organizational Norms
Just like you might look for insight into a company’s overall culture, assess the cultural norms around meeting interactions. As you note rules, etiquette, or patterns in participants’ communication styles, ask yourself:
• How–and how often–do meeting participants interrupt one another?
• What types of interruptions are occurring? Do they appear related to power dynamics (e.g., managers tend to interrupt their direct reports)? How frequently is technology a factor (e.g., people dialing in remotely are inadvertently speaking over each other)?
• Are there institutional practices in place to mitigate interruptions (e.g., conference tables are stocked with “parking lot” Post-its for participants to jot down comments they think of while someone is talking, thereby encouraging them to “park” the thought instead of interjecting)?
Once you understand the cultural norms, it’ll be easier to determine how to navigate.
Prep a few go-to phrases
Jot down a couple of lines to use right after you’ve been interrupted. Planning ahead is a great way to hedge against the natural human tendency to panic and react ineffectively in the moment, says Luna, who has studied psycholinguistics. Noting that humans have a desire for completion and may be more likely to empathize with phrasing that aligns with that, she suggests language like, “Before we move on, I’d love to wrap up my thought.” Ultimately, though, Luna encourages tailoring your wording to whatever feels most natural and appropriate for your environment. Saying something as blunt as, “I wasn’t finished,” for example, might be effective in a culture that preaches directness, while in other contexts, assertions may not be a productive way to re-enter the conversation.
During a meeting
Chime in early
As a general rule, the sooner you can get your voice heard in a meeting, the better, says Luna. Research cites roughly equal conversational turn-taking as one of the best predictors of high-performing teams, and the benefits of claiming your talking space early on in a meeting can help reduce the participation barrier throughout the discussion. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande explores the impact of this within surgical teams. When all members of a team each voiced their names to each other before surgery, Gawande not only noted a positive impact on team members’ willingness to speak up during the procedure; he also observed a 35% decrease in the average number of surgical complications and deaths. He attributes the dip in part to an “activation phenomenon.” When team members participate early on, they feel an increased responsibility and comfort speaking up and calling out problems later.
Presume Positive Intent
There’s often an assumption that interrupters act with a certain arrogance and intentionality, says Luna. In addition to recognizing that people’s personalities and learned experiences vary, she recommends shaking any negative stigma you’re holding against those who interrupt. Remind yourself that people who repeatedly cut you off may not realize how you’re perceiving them (and that many would be glad to hear as much; at least half of the participants in Luna’s unconscious bias workshops, for example, have reported that they want to be more sensitive to colleagues). Even in the rare instance that the interrupter is acting consciously or maliciously, assuming otherwise can help you react with more confidence and less emotionality. In that sense, presuming positive intent can be a powerful tool to help you re-enter the conversation while helping the interrupter recognize his or her unconscious behaviors.
Resist the Urge to Shut Down
In that moment when you’ve been cut off, it’s completely natural to want to pull back and make yourself smaller, says Luna. But if you still have something substantive to add, avoid giving up or shutting down. Avoid crossing your arms, withdrawing, checking your phone, or, worse yet, getting up and leaving. Instead, look for a thoughtful window to get back into the conversation. Experiment with asserting yourself with verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., make a signal with your hand, clear your throat, lean in, and increase your volume slightly).
Approach the interrupter
If you’re comfortable giving direct, one-on-one feedback to a colleague who left you feeling unable to complete your thoughts in a specific meeting, do it. During a meeting break (or no more than 24 hours post-meeting), Luna suggests asking the person, “Would you be open to hearing some quick feedback on how that meeting went?” She recommends keeping the tone positive as you express that you weren’t able to contribute to the meeting the way you wanted. Try using clear, observational language like “I noticed …” or “I felt like I didn’t get a chance to…” If you feel unsafe or at risk of coming off accusatory, try framing your feedback as a question. For example, “I’ve been noticing I start talking and get cut off. Do you think it’s something I’m doing?” Making the interaction less about calling out someone’s behavior and more about how he or she can help you be heard can go a long way.
Create coalitions to regain the floor
If you feel you might benefit from an ally calling out instances when you’re cut off in order to help you regain the floor, set up an arrangement with a trusted colleague who’s willing to jump in as appropriate. Suggest that he or she experiment with inviting you back into the conversation with completion language like, “I think [your name] wasn’t finished yet. Did you want to finish your thought?”
Rethink the stigma
While respecting other’s talking space is important, Luna discourages swearing off interruptions altogether. They can be a natural part of how people communicate, and if members of a group are overly concerned with not interrupting one another, they may risk losing the benefits of the creativity and positive energy that can come with people building off of one another’s thoughts. The impact of being interrupted tends to be most negative when it prevents you from finishing a thought, says Luna. She recommends tracking how interruptions impact completion (i.e., does the speaker bounce back from a given interruption and get a chance to finish his or her thought before the end of the conversation?). Instead of enforcing a culture of “let’s not interrupt,” she advocates for one of “let’s let each other finish.” “Give people the space back,” she says. “That’s a healthier, more blameless conversation, and more practical and productive on the whole.”