Girl interrupted: what’s the best way to handle people talking over you?

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Stylist Team
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Dates, the dinner table, boardrooms – has cutting off others mid-sentence become the new power play? At a time when it feels like we’re being interrupted more than ever, Stylist’s Moya Sarner explores how to make yourself heard.

I’m no scientist, but I’ve just conducted my first experiment. My ‘lab’ is the Stylist meeting room, where I’m observing and tallying the number of interruptions during a 20-minute brainstorm. The method? Hiding a dictaphone under my notebook and trying not to lunge protectively towards it every time papers are shifted around the table. The results? Eye-opening, to say the least…

There’s a reason I’m surreptitiously tallying people who are butting in. Take the example of Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and now the Democratic senator of California. Last month, she was repeatedly interrupted by two male Republican senators during a hearing – and pretty soon, Twitter was aghast.

A week earlier, scientist Veronika Hubeny sat on a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York, during which the male host repeatedly spoke over her until an exasperated woman in the audience finally called out, “Let her speak, please.” Footage of both ended up going viral, the latest in a long line of clips showing interruptions playing out on a grand scale (who could forget Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs?).

Of course, we’ve all experienced that irrepressible urge to (deploys a slightly louder-than-usual voice) deliver our witty one-liner or intelligent observation – and to hell with whoever was talking. But the fact that these clips keep going viral shows that we all also recognise that sinking feeling of being unceremoniously silenced – and we’ve all had enough of being cut off. So why do these so-called ‘manterruptions’ keep happening? And is it really just the men doing it?

What’s behind our interrupting culture?

My Stylist meeting pseudo-analysis recorded a huge amount of interruptions – 48 in fact, which is one every 25 seconds. Granted, my experiment was a tad crude, but it validates what Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language Of Women’s Friendships, says: “It takes two people to create an interruption – one person to start talking and the other to stop.”

Until now, studies have shown it’s primarily men interrupting women (see any of the recent political debates for examples of how that plays out in the public sphere). For instance, a 2014 study at George Washington University found that when men were talking with women, they interrupted 33% more often than when they were talking with men. And in our own experiment? The majority – two thirds, in fact – of interruptions came from men, and those men who did interrupt kept on speaking, unlike the women who stopped.

Tannen likens it to a competitive male sailor she knows, who told her that early in a race he notes the boats that are captained by women, because he knows that if he speeds towards them, they’re more likely to give way. The same thing happens in meetings.

“If you’re looking for a way in, you think you’ll have more of a chance if you interrupt a woman, because men seem to back off less. When you, as a woman, speak and others listen, it calls attention to yourself in a way that makes many men and women in our culture uncomfortable. There is a gut-level assumption that what the woman’s going to say is not as important,” explains Tannen.

Yet Tannen warns against blaming men completely. “It’s too simplistic to cast men as the bad guys entirely. Human relations and linguistic processes are very complicated.” In fact, as that 2014 study went on to show, both men and women interrupt women more than they do men.

One Stylist staffer says she’s even considered ending a friendship over interruptions. “My friend never lets me finish a sentence. It’s become worse as we’ve grown to know each other better – and sometimes I just give up speaking before I’ve even finished as I know she’ll finish my sentences. The relationship seems pointless because of it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s sometimes done with the best of intentions. “Often people perceive an interruption when that was not the intention: there has been a conflict of conversational styles,” says Tannen. We learn these styles as children: ‘high involvement’ describes people who talk along to show enthusiasm, whereas ‘high considerate’ describes people who believe only one voice can speak at a time. When they meet, there can be a linguistic culture clash.

But the way we converse has changed, too. Before, we’d wait our turns to talk – now, thanks to social media, we’re used to jumping into conversations immediately even if they’re not our own (the entire premise of Twitter, basically.) As our lives become more frantic and our conversations more rushed, perhaps we’ve simply lost our linguistic niceties?

The cost of interrupting

And if we’re all only ever one intake of breath away from interrupting each other, does it really matter? The experts think so – in fact, they all agree that we should take interrupting more seriously than we currently do.

For organisational psychologist and co-founder of 3COze consultancy, Liane Davey, the workplace is where it’s especially important to make sure you’re heard. “It’s extremely harmful when you’re constantly interrupted. If you think of yourself as a confident, capable person, yet all the evidence suggests that people talk right over you, it means that they don’t perceive you that way.

“If you withdraw, others lose confidence in you and there are strong stereotypes around leadership roles and power. It can have significant consequences for your career, as well as for your self-esteem and self-image, which in turn affect your whole life.”

Of a workplace study she conducted, Tannen says, “One finding was particularly disappointing: people draw conclusions about their colleagues’ abilities based on how others treat them. If a woman is frequently interrupted, we pick up on those cues and conclude that what she’s saying isn’t that important – that she’s not worth listening to.”

And what about the interrupter? Even though the interuptee feels most maligned, the interrupter is often driven by their own subconscious fears when speaking out. As a senior team member at our meeting confessed, “I never realise I’m interrupting – I just want to contribute and get my opinion across quickly. Often I feel like I haven’t said enough, and so I pipe in – but at the wrong times.”

If you fear you’re the conversational bulldozer of the group, one way to check is to see how often you finish other people’s sentences, or if you’re truly listening and not just thinking about what you’re going to say next. Some even suggest that gracefully allowing the odd interruption is good manners, and that if you don’t let somebody get a word in, it makes you seem domineering – especially in social situations where conversation is more nuanced. What’s the solution?

With all of us wanting to be heard more than ever, whether that’s on Facebook or face to face, the answer lies more in adjusting our entire behaviour – not just our words. A study found that women were interrupted more when leaning back, smiling, and looking away – so the key is to lean in (Sheryl Sandberg would be pleased), look focused and maintain eye contact if you want to hold the floor.

Tannen also has a key suggestion for both maligned parties. “Interruptees should just start talking and not stop. You don’t even have to say ‘let me finish’ – just keep talking.” And interrupters can say: “I hope I’m not interrupting you – if you think I am, please let me know.” Being diligent during your next conversation and seeing exactly who is interrupting whom could ensure that everyone manages to have their voice heard… and that can only be a good thing.

Below, organisational psychologist Liane Davey details the four most common interruption situations – and how to fend them off.

The Power Play

The scenario: You’re in a problem-solving meeting at work, in the middle of articulating your brilliant point, when you hear a voice picking holes in your argument before you’ve even finished. Your gut reaction is abject fury.

The subtext: “This interruption is a red card: it’s always premeditated,” says Davey. It occurs when the interruptee is saying something contentious or impressive and the interrupter wants to throw them off their game, causing them to become flustered and defensive. Colleagues are likely to unconsciously side with the aggressor because, as Davey puts it, “there’s something alluring about power”.

The fix: “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ means you’ve apologised for someone else’s aggression towards you, and asking ‘Can I continue?’ subtly erodes your power, making you seem weak.” As soon as it happens, say ‘Did you have something you wanted to add?’ – a polite way of saying ‘You’ve interrupted me’ that isn’t apologetic. But if it happens routinely, Davey advises calling in backup by approaching someone else on the team, explaining that you’re often being cut off and ask for ‘coaching’ to handle things differently. This makes you seem more in control, results in valuable feedback, and your colleague will be more likely to notice next time it happens.

The co-operative interjection

The scenario: You’re chatting to your friends about an epic holiday idea, then before you know it, your plan is being derailed by your other friend suggesting an entirely different continent and another suggesting a different time of year. The moment passes, and you never do get to pitch your proposed group trip. You’re not angry – more annoyed.

The subtext: “These interruptions tend to occur in lively discussions where everyone is interrupting each other, and it’s actually evidence you’re a respected, equal member of the group,” says Tannen. Nevertheless, says Davey, although it’s not meant to shut you down, it can have a negative effect over time. “Power dynamics in groups mean it might seem ‘co-operative’ but if people are speaking over you again and again, it can look like they’re overriding you, taking control of the discussion.”

The fix: “You should handle this very differently from a power play interruption, because it’s more likely to come from someone who sees themselves as an ally,” says Davey. She suggests having a private, good-natured conversation to let them know that you don’t always feel like you get your point across. At work, in a high-functioning team, you should hear three nanoseconds of silence between each person speaking – “That’s the best sign that there is listening going on, so wait for a beat before you start speaking.”

The uncontrolled outburst

The scenario: You’re at dinner with your partner and another couple. You start complaining about the waiter’s attitude but don’t get to finish, because one of the other couple interjects with an emotional tirade against rude customers – and it seems like it’s aimed at you. Awkward…

The subtext: “If you’re being interrupted by someone using an emotional tone, it’s usually a failing of their self-control, and not about you,” says Davey. Whoever is meant to be listening to you has lashed out, because they aren’t able to inhibit their response and wait for the appropriate break in conversation.

The fix: Your instinct might be to fight back or withdraw completely in shock, but it’s crucial in this instance to stay calm. “It might sound counter-intuitive, but don’t immediately steer the conversation back to your topic – it will set up a tug-of-war dynamic and just increase the level of hostility.” Instead, Davey’s advice is to turn your attention to your interrupter, saying, “This seems to have provoked a strong reaction for you, tell me your thoughts.” Let them speak and feel like they’ve been heard and then go back to your original point afterwards.

The efficiency intervention

The scenario: You’re on a fourth date. Everything seems fine, except that you keep getting cut off – they’re finishing your sentences, and you feel like you’re being hurried along.

The subtext: Davey describes this kind of interruption as self-inflicted. “I see this a lot, and it’s a question of shared accountability, as many people can be verbose or unclear in their expression. This interruption says: ‘I get it, you’ve made your point already’.” But it can also be a sign the other person has given up and is letting themselves be interrupted.

The fix: If you notice that you’re being interrupted like this, Davey says you need to monitor how well you convey your points – and how engaged you are. And if it’s in a work setting, Tannen suggests practising what you’re going to say before you actually say it. Another tip if you’re being concise is to speak more quickly sure you’re than you otherwise would, as generally people will interrupt you less. And never use disclaimers like, “I could be wrong, but…” or “This might not work, but…” – it sends a message to your listener that what you’re saying is not all that important. And that’s a cue to be interrupted.

Images: iStock