Managing Interruptions

Posted by Lynne Elvins on 19.09.17

The West of England Design Forum held a Women in Design’ event on 13th September, and I was pleased to facilitate a group to discuss training needs. Specifics were of far more interest than general topics, and one of the specific situations that came up was how to deal with being interrupted – something that affects women more than men and yet can pass-by completely unchallenged in many workplaces. 

Why do people interrupt?

We all interrupt sometimes, and some of us are brought up with interruption and/​or argument being an expected part of a conversation. We might interrupt because we are just incredibly engaged and excited. Interruptions can also sometimes be constructive, such as: asking for clarification, correcting an incorrect fact, or interrupting to positively endorse a great point. 

How we engage with interruption varies across cultures and across families – which can be why some people don’t even realise they are doing it, or don’t appreciate that other people are frustrated by it. But, whether we intended it or not, being talked over makes people feel under-valued, because it signals that they are not being listened to. 

Studies have shown that women are interrupted far more than men. And when women interrupt, they are also more likely to interrupt another woman. Levels of interruption are related to power and authority, which is why it can feel horribly undermining when it comes your way. People tend to dominate conversations and interrupt when they feel more powerful than others in the room, or when they feel the need to signal power to others. One study found that even if women don’t like being interrupted, once they rise in the workplace, they are more likely to do it themselves. But be warned: if you talk more, interrupt, and listen less, you will fail to learn from others, with consequences for your own level of knowledge and creative performance.

Dealing with interruptions

Create ground rules at the start of your next meeting. Clarify who is going to be the owner or facilitator. You can implement a formal no-interruptions policy, or at least make it clear that everyone is expected to be vigilant for interruptions and point them out. 

Interrupters need opportunities to thrive. When you are speaking try to keep pauses short, maintain your flow and don’t give interrupters the benefit of eye contact – it suggests you are inviting their next comment.

If you know your flow of points isn’t going to be smooth, set the scene. For example: I’m still working on these ideas, so please let me get my thoughts out there first, and then I’d really like your questions and suggestions”. And enlist a colleague beforehand to support you in fending off unwanted interruption.

If you still get interrupted, a firm, please let me finish” might be called for. And don’t forget to voice a supportive please let them finish” if you witness someone else being interrupted. 

Lastly, don’t start counter-interrupting just to make your point. You will only reduce yourself to bad-practice and generate a vicious circle of constant disruptions. Stay cool, stay calm. If interrupting is the only way you will get heard, be prepared. Listen attentively for your opportunity, and take it.

Photo credit: Faye Hedges 
Design: Kerry Wheeler