Confessions of a Non-Interrupter
I’ve always struggled getting my voice heard at work. Those who know me might find this surprising. Among my friends and family, I’m known for being a headstrong, passionate human with pointed opinions and ideas aplenty.
At work though? I can find it hard to get a word in edgewise. Because while I’m never short of ideas/thoughts/suggestions, I’m also not one to forcibly insert myself into a conversation, talk over people, or constantly interrupt.
Because of this, when I was in my corporate job, I often felt like I was playing the role of benchwarmer in meetings. Rather than jumping in and contributing any value, I’d sit back and watch the ping-pong of conversation that seemed to have no pauses (or even an end) in sight.
I found that tactics employed at home didn’t seem to do the trick in the office. The noticeable intake of breath, the leaning forward, the respectful interjection… nope. Most of the time, these attempts at jumping in were unobserved (at best), and steamrolled by louder, more forceful voices (at worst).
It’s not necessarily that interrupters are cutting people off maliciously. Oftentimes it’s a habit so deeply ingrained that they can’t even tell when they’re doing it. And there are definitely times when interrupting can happen organically, and be part of what moves a discussion forward. But when interrupters take over, whether intentional or unintentional, they shut down other voices. Introverts, shy folk, those that are more deliberative, and, troublingly, women and other minorities, can get steamrolled by the fast-thinking, fast-talking, exuberant and extroverted among us.
Diversity, in all facets and forms, matters. If we’re just hearing from the loudest voices in the room, are we really ensuring that the best ideas are coming to the fore?
First thing’s first. How do you even get a word in edgewise if you’re a non-interrupter? Well, it requires getting comfortable with some discomfort. Unless you’re in an exemplary workplace where leaders are finely attuned to who contributed when and how often, no one’s going to do the work for you. To give yourself the best shot at participation, try the following:
Visibility: Sit towards the front of the room and/or in the leader/decision-maker’s line of sight. You mean business. Find a place that’s conspicuous enough that when you try to contribute, you’ll be seen.
Body Language: Make big, noticeable moves when you’re about to talk. Whether it’s a loud (and I do mean loud) intake of breath, or a sweeping hand gesture, don’t be afraid to go BIG.
Speak Assertively: An overly polite, barely audible voice isn’t going to be heard among a room of interrupters. Speak clearly, confidently, and as loudly as you dare.
Ok, now that you’re in the game, what are some strategies to prevent interruptions while you’re speaking? We like to go at this from multiple angles (because everyone should be a part of the solve). So, whether you’re the non-interrupter, the friend of a non-interrupter, or suspect that you might be one of these interrupters yourself, here are some tactics to employ:
FOR THE NON-INTERRUPTER
The “I’m not done” If you’re interrupted, calmly respond with “hold on, I’m not quite done.” I know this is uncomfy for a lot of us (myself included), but if you do it enough times, those interrupters will start catching on. Pro-tip—for this to really work, you can’t come off as angry or defensive. Try to keep your cool and be as casual and chill as possible.
The Preemptive Strike Make the first move. Before you start talking, say “I want to get this full thought out, so please hang tight and let me get through before jumping in.”
The One-on-One Convo If there’s one chronic interrupter who keeps cutting you off, ask for a one-on-one conversation to bring the interrupting behavior to their attention. It’ll likely take a few of these conversations to actually get the message to stick, but if it (eventually) makes it easier for you to get your ideas heard, it’s worth it.
FOR FRIENDS OF THE NON-INTERRUPTERS
The Lead by Example If you’re a leader, you obviously hold some power over the flow of conversation. Be intentional about when you speak, and give people a chance to contribute first. You really do set the precedent.
The Anti-interruption Ally If you hear someone being interrupted, or trucked over, stop the interrupter and say, “hey, I don’t think Tim was quite done with his thought. What were you saying, Tim?” Sometimes it’s easier to speak up on someone else’s behalf than it is to speak up for yourself.
The Let’s Revisit That Comment Did someone get totally trucked over and not have a chance to finish? You don’t have to address it right in the moment. Instead, you can try the ‘ole revisit trick. “Hey, Jen mentioned something earlier that intrigued me, and I don’t think she had a chance to finish.”
FOR THE INTERRUPTERS
The Read the Room Try placing your attention outward instead of inward. By that I mean focus less on what you’re saying or going to say next, and more on reading the room and listening to others. If someone takes a deep breath, opens their mouth to speak, leans inward… they’re probably getting ready to say something. Try, especially, to pay attention to the quieter people in the room.
The Let People Breathe When someone’s talking, don’t take every pause as an opening. Pauses can be a powerful way for speakers to accentuate a point they’re making… and also, sometimes people just need to take a breath.
The Accountability Buddy It might be the case that you don’t even realize when you’re interrupting. Recruit an accountability buddy. Find a friend or colleague that you’re comfortable with and ask them to point out your interruptions during one-on-one conversations.