Being interrupted

In the course of my work I am frequently asked, “Is there anything I can do to stop them interrupting me when I’m speaking?”

“Who?” I usually ask.

“Native speakers”… “Senior men”… or  “The team from Head Office” they frequently answer.

What do these groups have in common? We will return to this question. First, let’s explore the experience of interruption.

You are in a normal, everyday management meeting with your peers.  The formal agenda is complete and you are discussing your views on an aspect of a deal. You have an important point to make. You’ve done your homework. You are waiting for an opportunity to bring it up. You take the conversational floor, and you begin to introduce the theme when someone else politely “just” has a comment to make and the conversation veers off. You hold your thought in your head a while, waiting for the opportunity to return to the topic without showing unacceptable levels of disrespect to the current speakers. All this means of course, that you aren’t really listening to them; you are really only listening for a tiny break in the flow, a space just big enough for you to go back to what you were trying to say earlier…

…when someone else says it for you. As if by magic someone in this “other” group (native speakers, senior men, the folk from Boston or Paris or Rome) picks up your theme and claims it as their own.

What happened? You were assertive, concise, clear. Your English may not have been perfect but it was certainly good enough. What gives people the right to do that? What can you do to resist and return?

Take Silvana for example. Silvana is a partner in a professional services firm. She is an acknowledged expert in the industry and commands enviable respect from her internationally dispersed team. Why is it then, she asks herself, that when she is in a meeting with more senior colleagues her contributions sometimes go unheard? And most frustrating of all, why is it that she says something which appears to go unnoticed only to be picked up by someone else a little later in the meeting, and this time the idea is taken up enthusiastically, heralded as the idea of the meeting.

In part, Silvana recognises that her lack of a strong command of English stops her from taking a more proactive position in raising her points and making suggestions.

She explains, “My lack of confidence in my English fluency prevents me from taking advantage of the conversation with top managers when they visit. This under-confident feeling means I usually prefer to shut up and take a back row place where I lose the opportunity for visibility. But then sometimes they tell me I am been too strong and sound aggressive…

So which is it? On the one hand her style means she often goes unnoticed; and on the other, she believes because she hasn’t got the right words, she interrupts too quickly and therefore sounds angry.

If we take the popular line that Silvana is not assertive enough, or that her language is somehow  weaker than those whose ideas are picked up, we inevitably end up finding fault with her. If instead we take a step back and use Linguistics to reflect on the event, we can think about the problem differently.

Take the notion of conversational rights and obligations, a common concept in a range of linguistic theories and perspectives. In different settings, different speakers have different rights which are recognised and taken up as an integral part of the interaction. (Think doctor-patient, teacher-pupil). Most episodes of spoken interaction follow “the rules” and the speakers in them take up their roles without thought or question.

The issue then becomes how we recognise what is appropriate, how we are able to know what to contribute and when.

To take an extreme example, last week I went to the theatre – three and a half hours of a powerful and moving interpretation of King Lear. The audience was (of course) silent. No one said, “Can I just come in here?” or “Actually, I think we need to go back the idea I introduced at the start.” Members of such an audience don’t have the right to interrupt.

At the other end of the scale is a family dinner where children, parents and grandparents are gathered. People speak over one another, they tend not to get offended if they are interrupted and are just as likely to fall silent to listen to the very youngest member of the family as they are to listen to Grandma.

There is no single rule covering interruption. Getting it right depends on familiarity with the activity, its setting, and on reading the situation using the subtle social, cultural and conversational skills you have developed through exposure, experience and the slow process of trial and error. And the truth is you already know when you are able to interrupt. Given the right setting and the right relationships you do it without a second thought.

Getting it wrong though is like speaking out in the middle of a play.

A standard, everyday management meeting may follow familiar interaction rules but it is never a level playing field. It is influenced by culture, by gender and by status – things like hierarchy, expertise, and social class. Now we can return to native speakers, senior men and the folk from Head Office. The conversational entitlements of these higher status individuals can rarely  be questioned in practice, and it is in the subtleties of these interactions that our biases about gender, culture and status play out.

As a leader it falls to you to becomes more aware of these rules and to use your influence to challenge them. Reflect on the subtle implications of conversational rights and obligations  in your interactions and set up your meetings with these in mind. Make it clear that interruption is unwelcome, and keep your own eye and ear on the contributions of those who in some way might be seen to belong to a group whose status is somehow higher (or lower) than the rest.  Doodle a small circle of dots on your notepad – the same number of dots as participants – and circle the contributors who seem to do the interrupting.  Like watching sunlight in a forest, a pattern will emerge. Is this the pattern you want? If not, call it out. The chances are that this behaviour is felt by individuals but not seen by the group. If you make it more visible, you give group the opportunity to develop new patterns, slightly different rights and subtly altered obligations.

As professional women we do ourselves a crippling disservice when we judge our (richly diverse) ways of speaking as the main reason we go unnoticed or are open to unwelcome interruption. Conversational rights and obligations work in the interaction between us, and it is between us that the changes must take place.

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