Have you ever left a meeting without getting the chance to say a word?
Maybe you were about to speak up, and just when you took a breath, a domineering colleague jumped in first. And maybe this happens to you repeatedly, shaking your confidence a little more each time.
It’s as if someone, somewhere, has pressed the mute button on you.
How do you unmute yourself? How do you create the space to lean in, to share your expert view, knowledge, and perspective on a subject of your competence?
Studies show that men tend to speak more in meetings, and women get interrupted more often. Similarly, people in Asia tend to listen more when compared to their western counterparts.
I’m happy to see that more people know about this and that outlooks are changing. For example, the inspiring project Stories of Asia helps the need to balance voices. And as per the PWC global research, women, too, are becoming more vocal than ever. Great!
Despite a growing number of such examples, many people, introverts and extroverts alike, still find it hard to unmute. It’s as if being muted has been baked into your personality. You want to break free. You want to raise your voice. You want airtime as well!
How to break out? How will you get your voice into the pool if you’re not one of the people leading the discussion?
Generally speaking, interrupting others is not recommended. It’s impolite, as we’re witnessing in the current US presidential debates.
However, there are situations where interrupting others may be just the right thing to do. Here are four times when it’s good to interrupt and how to do so effectively.
Interrupt when a meeting is in the claws of a notorious, space-hogging speaker.
Wherever groups of people are found, there is likely someone with love for monologues. While their ongoing talking isn’t usually harmful, it may be the sign of a strategy of not wanting to hear other perspectives or proposals.
As Desmond Tutu says,
” If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Although the monologues of stage hogs might not always represent oppression, it can feel that way to those who didn’t make it into the spotlight or have an opportunity to present their ideas.
When you run into the notorious speaker’s claws, it’s right (and your right!) to unmute and interrupt!
It’s not always comfortable to be brave and intervene, especially if you are dealing with someone on a higher hierarchical level than you. Getting into the habit of interrupting will help you do it more skillfully and confidently next time.
If you need something more to convince you to gear up and be brave, think of all the other great ideas, expertise, and perspectives that won’t be brought to light if you won’t do so. Do it for the sake of inclusivity!
Here are a few tips that can help:
– Know that it’s a sensitive juggle between a good dose of listening and assessing the right moment to interrupt
– Wait for the person to catch a breath
– Clear your throat
– Be polite
– Have a clear, prepared point
2. Interrupt when you feel hit by the invisibility syndrome.
One of my mentees recently told me how she skillfully steered a high-profile board meeting in which, she, the lowest in rank, brought the conversation back on track while gaining everyone’s respect.
For her, interrupting was a newly acquired behavior, and a reason to celebrate.
In the past, she, just like many others, often found herself often “invisible,” especially in board-level meetings. It wasn’t due to her lack of expertise or a lack of points that would enrich the discussion. It was her own beliefs holding her back—she considered the other partners in the meeting more important or even smarter than she was. Because of this belief, she’d wait to be asked to contribute, even if it meant potentially miss meeting her objectives. She was invisible.
I asked her: What was different this time? How did you do it?
My mentee told me that she had prepared. She knew what she needed to lead her organizational objectives forward. She didn’t let her inner voices distract her. She was fully present.
When the moment arose, she interrupted with confidence, without apologies but with respect, and point-blank stated her observation: The conversation was off track.
That one action established her as an eye-to-eye partner and earned her respect from her counterparts. She participated in the rest of the discussion and influenced the outcome.
How many times have you been at a meeting where competent colleagues didn’t voice their views? How many times was it more comfortable to sit back?
Don’t stay invisible. Help others to fight the syndrome, too. Unmute and interrupt!
What can help?
The book “How Women Rise” is a great resource. It discusses the most limiting beliefs and habits women hold, which prevent them from rising to the next level of their careers. The authors Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith provide many stories, which make their practical advice easy to absorb.
What’s that—you’re a man? I bet you’ll find yourself holding at least one of the limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits, too!
3. Interrupt to save the meeting!
It requires a significant level of focus, especially nowadays, to absorb all of the information presented or discussed in one business day. Working virtually hasn’t helped; it’s now even tougher to focus and easier to give in to constantly presented disturbances.
You’ve noticed the moment when people’s eyes go blank on the screen. Did they fall asleep? Are they reading an email on their phone? Or maybe they switched off their camera—another sign of being disengaged.
When this happens, your colleagues may have lost their focus, and may not understand the subject as a consequence. They may also not know how the topic is relevant to them.
Yes, you can do nothing about it. You can join them in their disengagement and go for a mail hunt in your own inbox.
Or you can see their disengagement as an opportunity to unmute and build stronger relationships by helping out.
Unmute and interject.
Let the presenter know that she’s losing you. Point out where clarification is needed. Raising your own questions and concerns helps make the presentation more relevant to, and interesting for, everyone.
4. Interrupt when you’re the witness.
Have you ever been in a meeting where people were gossiping about or mocking someone who wasn’t present? That’s not cool.
You’re a witness, and you know it’s not right.
When you witness moments like those or other “not right” happenings, it’s right for you to unmute and interrupt immediately.
Don’t worry about the right timing or whatever hierarchies are present. By listening in without saying a thing, you are participating.
Stay polite, respectful and brave. Doing the right thing may be challenging, but it is rewarding in the long run.
What other situations have you been in where you felt it was right to interrupt? Did you interrupt? If not, why? If so, how did you go about it? What helped you?
If you see yourself in these scenarios and are struggling with changing the way you deal with them, let’s chat!
Drop a note to email@example.com
Dana, as usual a thought provoking piece. I would suggest a place for women to begin to unmute themselves is their extended family table. Being an only sister of 3 loquacious brothers, I had often found myself spoken over. It was not done with malice, but it did make me feel as if what I needed to impart was not as important as their thoughts & experiences. If a woman can take control of that situation with either family or male friends, I have found that it’s a first step to honing the skill to speak up in a business setting. As a woman in business, I have used my male relationships to help me remember at a meeting that the men around the table are no different than my male siblings & friends & that has given me the confidence to speak up and give my input on a matter. Just a thought. I always enjoy reading your pieces. Be well my sister!
Thank you, Aurelie, for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Often, we don’t realize that what we learn at home helps in our professional life, and what we learn in business can be applied in private life. You have a unique ability to hold authority and respect while being a great listener and caring human being. I wish I would have had the pleasure to witness you in a board meeting!