How To Avoid the Meeting Interruptus Syndrome

Businessman Conducting a Meeting with His StaffDear 40-Somethings,

Something I see all the time in academia, whether in departmental meetings or classroom or conference settings, is women getting interrupted by men or being “drowned out” by louder and/or more aggressive male voices.

Sometimes it’s simply a question of men’s voices being louder; they may not even mean to be overbearing. Do you have any advice for women in these situations?

Calling out the interruption often feels like having to be “bitchy.” How else might women go about cultivating an environment where you don’t have to be “loudest” or “most aggressive” to get your voice heard?” — 30-something academic

I received this question a few weeks ago from a woman academic on how to deal with men who interrupt or talk over her in meetings. It’s a timely issue that goes well beyond academia, as this article in Sunday’s paper attests. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant are taking on the issue.

“We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.” – Speaking While Female, NY Times

One suggestion offered by the article was to impose a no interruption rule on all meetings…silencing male and female talk hoarders alike. It’s hard to do that when you are not in charge. But there may be an opportunity to suggest this to your boss, even using this article as a way introduce the idea. Another incentive…it could improve productivity in meetings as it did for the show runner on “The Shield”:

“He announced to the writers that he was instituting a no-interruption rule while anyone — male or female — was pitching. It worked, and he later observed that it made the entire team more effective.”

I’ve been working on collecting answers from academics, but in the meantime have gotten responses from my always insightful 40-something panel (big thanks to this amazing group of women who consistently share their wisdom, wit and ideas with my readers and me). The panel had a variety of answers from building your own confidence to setting an agenda to pointing it out to the offender.

Expect more answers to this question in this space as I continue to research. And please share your own advice (here)!

Structure the meeting with an agenda….

“Creating structure around the event can help cultivate an environment that you can better control. Having an agenda, for example, and someone in charge to move things forward tends to allow for better management and control of a meeting. The person at the helm is then authorized to mitigate and manage the flow of the discussion. With that said, I have come to learn that people with the loudest voices drown themselves out – and get dismissed more readily – while less verbose individuals who tend to only speak when they have value to add are the ones that get much more respect and wield more influence.” – 40-something, financial advisor, NYC

Offer to organize the meeting so you can do above…

“As a woman, I like to always run the meetings with an agenda. When a meeting needs to be organized, I am the first to raise my hand to say I will do it so I can control the timing as well as the content in the agenda. Then I use initials to assign people to address each point. When the conversation gets loud or a male or female takes over, I talk louder over that said male or female to bring the meeting back to order since I called the meeting. Other times, there is more power in being quiet and waiting till the loudest is finished as then chime in.” – 40-something, Director of PR, NYC

Dis-interrupt and disarm…

“What always works for me is saying in a non-aggressive voice, “If I could just finish my point”. Also I have found in business that it is often the most soft spoken and choiceful speakers that get the attention, versus the loud blatherers.” – 40-Something, Global Account Director, NYC

“The minute you spot the opportunity to start speaking again, defuse the interruption by agreeing that it’s GREAT that the individual who interrupted you brought up this very important (or valuable or informative, etc.) point. Thank them warmly for their input, and then go right back to what you were saying. Even if your point is in some way at variance with the man’s idea, he’ll be disarmed by your expression of appreciation, and anyone observant enough to have noted the interruption will know exactly what you’re doing and think highly of you for it. Most people won’t even see it.” – 40-something, PhD Education, Los Angeles

Don’t let a lack of confidence distract you….

“Most women by nature are more soft spoken and sometimes lack confidence in speaking, even if their point is valid. This can give others (not just men) the chance to jump in and interrupt. Be confident in what you are saying, people like confidence and will listen. Use a strong voice. No need to be loud, but you want to be heard so don’t shy away from your words. And be succinct.  Get to your point to allow for others to add after you’ve completed your thought. And when you are interrupted, and you will be as it seems to be human nature not to want to wait for someone to finish, just say, with a smile on your face, “I’m almost finished (insert name)” and jump back to your point. If you respond with a smile on your face and call out their name (if you know it) you can take back the point and continue. – 40-something, fashion exec, San Diego

“Often it’s the voices in our head that keep us from speaking up in meetings. We talk ourselves out of things. We have those voices in our head that say, “Maybe I can’t do it. Maybe I’m not experienced enough to be here. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe I won’t push back in.” You have to deliberately roll over it. When a negative thought enters your head you have to recognize it and rewind. You need to say: 1) I’ve seen this before; 2) I know it comes from a different place; 3) I am not going to listen to it. Then you shut it out and then you speak up. You do it again and again and it stops. I can attest to that.” – COO, CEO, from finance to innovation and healthcare

Address the offender…

When I worked in a small company that was male-dominated (women were only 10% of the employees), and in a male-dominated industry I experienced this. But I was not shy to make myself heard. I also found that I was respected for it. I think I have a different personality … but here are my thoughts.

It’s been my experience that women also speak over one another and others as well. Maybe this is from too much history of not feeling heard … who knows? I think the bottom line, though, is that it really doesn’t matter who is doing it or what the gender ratio is … it’s rude and everyone should feel that it’s ok to be heard. Standing up for yourself and wanting to be heard is not bitchy.  And to give the benefit of the doubt to those being overly dominant, it’s possible they don’t even realize it because no one has ever pointed it out. I would try first to speak up and say something like “excuse me, I also have something to add, please,” and if that doesn’t work, pull the culpable person(s) aside and calmly explain that you appreciate his enthusiasm but he might not realize he’s talking over people sometimes. If that approach doesn’t work either, you may just have a rude person(s) on your hands and, unfortunately there’s not much to do about that.

All in all, I think I’m disheartened by the fact that a woman in 2015 feels that she doesn’t have the right to speak up for herself without sounding like a bitch.  Understanding what makes you feel that way is key to overcoming it. – 40-something, marketing and business development, DC

This last point reminds me of an anecdote I read in this recap of the WSJ Women IN the Economy Task Force

“Even well-intentioned executives tend, often unconsciously, to dismiss women’s contributions. At Ernst & Young, where 23% to 26% of leadership teams internationally are women, CEO James Turley told the WSJ conference that he was running a meeting years ago when “three or four women said something I wasn’t paying attention to. Then a guy said something similar and I said, ‘That’s a really good point.’ ” Afterward, a female executive took him aside and said, “You probably have no idea what just happened,” he says. He hasn’t made the same mistake since.

I find that when you do point out something that was culturally “ invisible” to a man, he will go overboard to address it. It’s a matter of pride.

So again, look for more ideas here as they come in and feel free to share your own technique. Different things work for different people so the more ideas the better! After all, once we step up to the table, we have to make sure we get heard.

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