Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told an NYU Law School audience last week that recent changes were made in the format of their oral arguments after studies revealed a history of female justices being interrupted by male justices and advocates. This phenomenon is part of a larger trend of women being interrupted in the workplace. One George Washington University study found that men interrupted their colleagues 33% more often when they spoke with women than when they spoke with other men.
I often hear this concern in my communication workshops. The most common question: What do I do if I’m interrupted?
Below are four ways I counsel women—and anyone unfairly interrupted—to make sure their full points are heard and their voices respected.
Complete Your Point
Whether you are interrupted to be contradicted or supported, you have the right to finish your point (no more or less than any of your colleagues in the room or Zoom), so as soon as possible after the interruption, use a statement like these to resume conveying your point:
“I’d just like to finish what I was saying to make sure I was clear…”
“Thank you, Fred. To complete my point, I’d like to say…”
“One point I want to make sure is understood…”
Keep it Professional, not Personal
In your mind, be clear about your intention: not to shame the colleague who interrupted you or act on a grudge, but simply to make your point complete and clear. That requires focusing on responding over reacting. A reaction is instantaneous, like feeling insulted and defensive. A response involves patience and consideration, leading more quickly to corrective action.
To keep the focus on insight, not insult, avoid saying things like “Before I was rudely interrupted…” (Believe me, your interrupter will get the message.)
I also don’t recommend trying to talk over your interrupter (perhaps louder), as if in a battle to see who backs down first. This tactic creates conflict and competition, two elements that don’t belong in effective meetings. Let the interrupter finish or pause—because that’s how you show respect to colleagues—then jump in to complete your point.
Completing Sentences is Also an Interruption
For years, I was a notorious sentence-finisher. At the time, I thought I was helping my colleagues make their points and signaling my firm understanding and agreement, but I was actually appropriating their moments and making them my own. I wasn’t supporting; I was steamrolling. Be aware of your colleagues’—and your own—tendency to finish other people’s sentences and the impact of that behavior.
Elevate and Address Microaggressions
Sometimes, constant interrupting is a microaggression that may reflect a known or unknown bias. If you experience a pattern of inappropriate dominance, raise the issue in a way that feels most comfortable to you—that may be with your manager or to the person directly.
Remember that it’s your job to both speak up and stick up for yourself. Everyone at a meeting is qualified to speak and has the privilege to contribute and complete a relevant point, even if they must occasionally work for that right.
Joel Schwartzberg is a communications executive, public speaking trainer, and author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter and The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire Your Team.