What To Do When You're Interrupted At Work

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
Like "women laughing alone with salad," women being interrupted at work could conceivably be a stock photo genre of its own.
In June, California senator Kamala Harris tweeted about women on the U.S. Senate being "silenced," after she was interrupted twice by male colleagues.
Theoretical physicist Veronika Hubeny also made headlines last month when a video of her being interrupted — during a panel presentation that included her own research — went viral. As reported in The Observer, "a woman's voice" (later revealed to be that of Marilee Talkington, an actress, director, and disability rights advocate) "cried out from near the front of the dark auditorium: 'Let her speak, please!' The room erupted in cheers."
No matter what industry they work in, women can expect to have their authority challenged, expertise doubted, and voices quieted. But that doesn't mean they should smile and take it.
"I don't think it's possible to be a woman in business who works with people — men and women, — [and not] be interrupted. Maybe a better question is: How many times you've been interrupted today?" says Sallie Krawcheck, the CEO and cofounder of Ellevest.
Krawcheck describes an all too familiar dilemma: "I was talking on a public panel at a conference not long ago, and a young man jumped in, ran right over me, and kept talking. I found myself, even at this stage in my career, thinking: Do I re-interrupt him? Or do I point out that he interrupted me? And if I do that, do I become the bitch on the stage? Even today, it can be a difficult question for how you react to someone who is essentially being incredibly rude."
Although she greatly encourages doing something to be heard, Krawcheck generally advises against steamrolling the person right back. Continuing to talk over the person talking over you could work — or it could quickly descend into a shouting match that reflects poorly on both parties. Instead, she suggests a few other tactics: diving back in when the opportunity presents itself (as many times as needed), teaming up with other women, or speaking with a superior if the situation appears to be worsening.
"I remember being on a management committee [where] I just wasn't being called on. I knew it was not a comfortable situation, but I thought, well hold on a second. I have to represent my business here," the executive says. "Before the CEO would go onto the next topic, I would say, 'Excuse me, excuse me, [name of CEO]. May I just have a moment, because I think there's something important here?'"
For that first tactic, she adds that waiting until there's a pause and then raising your hand — in other words, using your body, not only your voice to call attention back to you — can redirect the conversation back to your point.
Krawcheck's second tactic is all about working with other women. She cites the example that former White House staffers set during President Obama's administration, in which they backed each other up and ran interference against chronic interrupters.
"When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own," the Washington Post reported. "'We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,' said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides."
So, if you're in a position to back someone else up (which doesn't necessarily require you to be at the top levels at your company or organization), start the chain and pay it forward. Krawcheck suggests saying something like: Hold on a minute, John. I really want Susie to finish her sentence. Or: That's a great idea, and I loved it when Susie said it the first go around. Do you have anything to add to it?
"That's ideal, because it takes you out of the She's such a bitch, she interrupted that person [territory]," she explains.
Third, if the interruptions are ongoing, you might pull the person or your supervisor aside and be calm, but direct. You could try a "Hey, you were a little rough on me in there, and I really wanted to finish what I was saying," Krawcheck says, or after two or three more times assume good intentions and try: "I'm sure you don't know you're doing this, but you keep running over me in the meeting."
If that fails, or if you feel more comfortable doing so in the first place, she suggests speaking with your manager. You might say, "Hey Steve/Joanna. You're in this meeting and I'm not sure if you noticed, but I keep getting run over. How can you help me manage through this?"
Phrasing it this way can shift the focus away from the other person's rudeness, and back to you and your desire to be a valuable member of the team. If you work at a larger company or organization, you could also inquire with HR about any coaching resources they provide.
"The underlying assumption is that these people want you to be successful. Assume that they're there to help you and coach you, and reach out to them as well," Krawcheck says. "I think a lot of times we get shut up or shut down when we're actually not confident about what we're saying. But if you're great at your job, if your comments are made succinctly and to the point, and if they have value, then absolutely stand your ground in a way that's comfortable for you."

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series