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Career: How To React When You’re Interrupted
Excuse me, I wasn't finished.
Career 15 Feb 2022

Ever been interupted mid-flow by your co-worker or boss? Chances are you have, and if you’re a woman, chances are you have been considerably more often than your male counterparts. One Stanford study by Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West – ‘Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation’ – drew the conclusion: “There are definite and patterned ways in which the power and dominance enjoyed by men in other contexts are exercised in their conversational interactions with women”. A George Washington University study discovered that men interrupted women 33% more often than when they were speaking to other men. When the person interrupting you is higher in the chain of command than you, it can be all too easy to shrink away and brush it off. Stop that.

It can be hard now in the age of WFH and Zoom meetings to know if someone’s cutting you off intentionally (maybe not maliciously, but certainly thoughtlessly) or if their WiFi has a short lag-time. There’s no problem with anticipating it being the former, and standing your ground.

Here are some statements to make, actions to take, and advice for the next time you get cut-off by a rude colleague:

  1. “[Name], I actually wasn’t finished.”
  2. “I’m almost done, [Name], can your comments please wait until when I am finished speaking?”
  3. “Please let me finish.”
  4. “I’ll take questions and comments at the end, if you’ll just let me finish now.”
  5. “I’d definitely like to discuss that, but before I lose my train of thought please let me continue.”
  6. “I haven’t had a chance to conclude, yet, can you wait a second?”

Remember – it’s all about being confident, not being rude back – you can say any of these phrases in a way that isn’t catty or blunt.

Don’t Apologise

Women and other marginalised folks may feel the need to say “sorry” much more than their white male counterparts. No need to apologise: they interrupted you. Skip over the “sorry” and get straight to your point: you weren’t finished speaking. This also goes for when you’re giving your talk/presentation/comments, make sure that you aren’t apologising and “softening” your content – instead of “It’s only been a couple of weeks so I’m not completely sure and I might be totally wrong but this is what my research found”, just say “This is what my research found”. When people sense that you’re not confident in what you’re saying, they might interrupt in order to “help”. Sigh.

Make Eye Contact

While you speak, make sure to give regular eye contact to each person listening (presuming this isn’t a full-blown TED Talk) to assert yourself, make sure people are engaged, and discourage anyone from chiming in. If they know you mean business, they won’t mess you about.

Speak to HR

If you’re finding that you are regularly interrupted and it’s affecting your confidence at work, tell HR about it. If there’s one particular interrupter in the office, that you know is a repeat offender, it might be that other women have mentioned it to HR already, and your comment is the final push they need to have a serious conversation with him.

Mention that you’ll take questions at the end

If you are giving a presentation, or are going to need to go into depth about a topic during a meeting, let everyone know that you will take questions at the end so they’ll keep their mouth shut until then. If you’ve spent weeks or even months on a project, the last thing you need is irrelevant people “chipping in” with their thoughts.

Call it out sooner rather than later

The last thing you need is to suppress your annoyance at being interrupted, until the point when you completely explode seemingly out-of-the-blue in an important meeting. As soon as you’ve been interrupted, that’s the point at which to say one of our key phrases, to establish that you’re not going to put up with that kind of behaviour, and to keep your sanity. You’re welcome.

Author: Verity Babbs

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