Whether they work in big companies or small businesses or solo enterprises, you’ll hear women talk about trying to talk…and about being interrupted, talked over or dismissed.
There she is, making an important point in a team meeting. When some guy grabs the conversational ball—and runs with it.
She’s laying out her proposal to the board. And a male member talks right over her as if he doesn’t even realize someone is speaking.
She’s having a sales conversation. And even the man who hopes she’ll buy can’t hold himself back from jumping in before she’s finished a sentence.
You’d think that this kind of stuff might stop when a woman’s in a position of real power. Apparently, you’d be wrong.
Even Supreme Court justices get interrupted. If they’re women.
A couple of Northwestern researchers studied transcripts of the court’s oral arguments. And found the male justices were the most oral.
The women on the court, they said, “are just like other women, talked over by their male colleagues.” In fact, they’re interrupted nearly four times as often as their judicial brethren.
And no, there’s no safety in numbers.
In fact, as more women are appointed to SCOTUS, the rate of interruptions increases. Even the lawyers appearing before the court interrupt the female justices. The advocates, as they’re called, are supposed to let every justice finish a sentence – it’s in the Supreme Court rules, guys.
So when Sandra Day O’Connor was the only woman on the court, 36% of interruptions were directed at her. (Meaning the other 64% of interruptions were split among eight men.)
In 2015, with three female justices, they were the targets of 66% of interruptions.
Here’s how the researchers make sense of it: “This lends support to research results in other areas that show that men react against women entering their domain in more than token numbers by increasing their aggressiveness against the women.”
Okay, so you and I – we’re not going to work at the Supreme Court Building today. But chances are pretty good that wherever we work, men will be interrupting. And women will be exasperated.
The net impact is quite serious: Women feel overlooked and under-heard. They may shut down or even leave the organization. Companies miss out on their worthwhile ideas. And there’s tension in the air that hurts working relationships and productivity.
What can we do to change all that?
- Stop softening. The research suggests women are interrupted less when they begin to talk more like men in one particular way. Over time, each of the women on the Supreme Court has held her conversational ground by dropping phrases like “May I ask …” or “Could I ask …” or “Excuse me …”
When you skip what they call “framing” and just get right to the heart of what you want to say, you give a guy less opportunity to interject.
- Don’t yield to conversational bullies. Yes, it might feel awkward to keep talking when that man is starting to blather. Go ahead and feel awkward. And keep talking anyway.
You might even say, “I’m still talking.” Or “Let me finish.” Okay, “Please let me finish” if you’re driven to be polite in the face of rudeness.
- Band together with other women. At the Obama White House, women reacted to being outnumbered and interrupted with “amplification.”
When one woman came up with a good idea, another woman would repeat that idea and give credit to the women whose idea it was. That made it harder for the men in the room to ignore the notion. Or to claim it as their own.
- The men among us could just stop interrupting. Which is not as easy as it sounds. If you want to stop—or even notice—your own manterrupting, here’s an exercise to try.
Put your lips together firmly. Really feel the sensation of your lips, almost as if they were glued together. Stay with that sensation as your conversational partner talks. Let her finish her whole thought. Yes. Her whole thought. Then wait a beat before you open your mouth to speak.
If you’re like most people, you’ll notice yourself wanting to jump in, feel your lips trying to come apart. I’ve had clients start writhing as they experience the competing urges to weigh in with their very important point…and to keep their lips together in the spirit of the exercise.
It’s useful to have that experience. To become conscious of how often we cut somebody off. And ultimately to change that habit.
Whether you’re a woman eager to be heard or a man intent on controlling a conversation, chances are good you’ve had some experience with manterrupting. Post a comment below and share it with us.
I’ve never seen this Supreme Court research before. Very valuable. Thank you!
Glad you found it interesting, Diana. I did too. And a bit discouraging. If the women in black robes get interrupted, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us, does it?
Excellent information, Catherine! And it’s not even just for the workplace! I’m wondering if you would consider doing a COUPLES training on this very topic.
Husbands and wives could use some training in this area before their marriage ends up in a lower court for irreconcilable interruptions!
“Irreconcilable interruptions” – I love that, Karen! Training husbands might take a level of tact that I don’t really have … but it’s a fascinating idea.