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How To Take Control When You’re Interrupted In Meetings

Forbes by Sarah Neville 19 September 2018

You’re in a meeting, about to give an update on a big project. You take a breath, and launch in. You share the context, some key data, and are just getting to your recommendations when Steve-from-marketing, interrupts with a comment – and you lose your train of thought. You respond, resume, and build up to your final point. He interrupts again, this time taking the floor – while you quietly fume. Been there?

We’ve all had colleagues, bosses, friends and family members who consistently interrupt. Insensitive and rude, right? Well… not so fast.

It turns out that how we perceive an interruption varies based on a number of factors – and that not all interruptions are created equal. Can we address them, and regain the floor? Absolutely. But first, it helps to understand who interrupts and why.

Helping out or butting in?

Interruptions fall into two basic categories. “Collaborative interruption” is when someone jumps in to express agreement, or reinforce an expressed idea. “Intrusive interruption” is an intrusion that changes the subject, redirects the discussion – or hijacks the conversation entirely. Clearly it’s the latter that feels most obnoxious, but how we perceive the difference between the two can be subjective.

Different styles

Recent research by Stanford’s Katherine Hilton, shows that how we perceive interrupting has much to do with our own approach to conversation. “Listeners’ own conversational styles influence whether they interpret simultaneous, overlapping talk as interruptive or cooperative. We all have different opinions about how a good conversation is supposed to go”, says Hilton, a doctoral candidate in linguistics. Her study found that speakers fall somewhere between two conversational styles; high and low intensity. High-intensity speakers have low tolerance for silence in conversation, and see overlapping talk as a sign of engagement. Low intensity speakers find interjections rude, and prefer that everyone speaks one at a time.

Gender

Numerous studies support the oft-cited claim that women are frequently interrupted by men. It’s certainly the complaint I hear most often when doing women’s leadership training or coaching.

Hilton’s research also highlighted gender bias, in that men were more likely to see women who interrupted as “ruder, less friendly and less intelligent than men who interrupted”, specifically when it was an intrusive interruption, involving a change of subject and raised voice.

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington DC, has long studied gender difference in communication. Her work explores the fundamental premise that men and women approach speaking with different aims: men speak to achieve power and status, women speak to forge connection. In conversations, men will interrupt to assert dominance, while women will hold back to preserve relationships.

Mike Henry, an executive at Scotiabank Canada, is well aware of the power dynamics inherent in communication. I recently heard him speak on a panel at the international Women’s Forum in Toronto, and was struck by how quickly and deliberately he conceded the floor to a female co-panelist after they offered overlapping responses to a question. He shared with me that he’s mindful of a leader’s role in modeling inclusive communication by ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be heard. “I get energetic in conversations and I personally enjoy debate, so it’s a function of reminding myself that other participants might not have that same style. If you’re not careful, you can lose the value in the other person’s contribution. It’s about trying to leave space.”

So how to deal with interruptions?

Manage your assumptions.

Be willing to cut some slack. While you may feel dismissed or derailed by interruptions, the other party is likely aware only of their own eagerness to engage in the conversation. Separating intent from impact can defuse some of the frustration so that we can deal with the interruption calmly.

Get ahead of the problem.

Before you even start speaking, set the expectation that you want to get through your ideas: “There are a number of factors that lead to this suggestion, so please bear with me as I give the context. When I’m done, I’ll be happy to hear any reactions.” Setting this mini-agenda can avert interruptions before they happen.

Hold your ground.

Keeping the floor sometimes requires quickly and politely calling out an intrusive interruption. Simply drawing attention to the interruption by saying, “please let me finish”, can be enough to halt it. Or you can acknowledge their intent by saying, “I know you have ideas to share here, but first I’d like to finish my thought.”

Enlist amplifiers.

Top female aides to President Obama created a strategy they called “amplification.” When a woman made a key point in a meeting, another woman would repeat it, giving credit to its originator.This both prevented and called out interruptions in male-dominated meetings, and ensured that the woman in question was recognized for her contribution.

Take it offline.

If all else fails, talk to the interrupter privately and share the impact of their behavior; they may be surprised to hear it. Addressing the problem head on, if done constructively, can go a long way to solving it.

By dealing with interruptions directly and positively, you can ensure not only that your own voice is heard, but also that there’s space for effective, respectful communication where everyone can have a say.

Sarah Neville is Director and Partner of Open Line, and is an instructor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.