What to do if colleagues keep interrupting you

December 4, 2018

By Katie Sanders at Fast Company on December 3, 2018

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.

PRE-MEETING

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).

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