I am a regional VP in a global asset management firm. I am stationed far away from headquarters as I am responsible for all of the projects in my region. My boss and his boss hold regular conference calls I am expected to attend. I am often tasked with presenting plans and budgets to a room full of people, when I am the only one on the phone.
Here is the problem; both my boss and his boss constantly interrupt me when I am speaking on these conference calls. They also interrupt me in regular conversation—and I am used to that—but I hate it when they do it on these calls. It disrupts my flow and I think it makes me sound like I don’t know what I am talking about.
I am often the only woman in these meetings. I have tried to convince myself that that doesn’t make a difference, but I wonder. What do you think?
I did a spit take when I read your last lines, only because there are reams of research showing that men interrupt women far more than they interrupt other men. And, sadly, women interrupt other women more than they interrupt men. (See Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language for more on this.)
But there is no woman working in business—wait, scratch that—there is no woman anywhere who needs research to tell her that. Ladies, I can hear you laughing out there. It is simply a fact of life. Let’s not turn this into a discussion about gender differences or inequality, because that conversation is being conducted elsewhere by people who know a lot more than I do. Instead, let’s focus what you can do.
The whole conference call thing exacerbates the situation; being the lone disembodied voice on the phone only adds to the level of challenge—and I know, because I lived it for a decade. Here are some tactics to try.
First, prepare. Get some time on the calendar with your boss and his boss before each of these meetings. Go over the highlights of your presentation and suggest places where they might chime in with additional material or add color commentary. Tell them that when they jump in on top of you it weakens your effectiveness as a presenter, and request that they let you manage the flow during your presentation. This is a completely reasonable request. Even if they don’t comply, you will have a stronger grasp of your narrative and not get distracted by interruptions. Also, you can take note of moments when the substance of what they interject might have been stronger if presented in another more structured way. Of course, that will depend on your relationship—and how much goodwill is present—with both parties in question. You will be the best judge of that.
In your preparation, make sure that you practice being loud enough, that you can be briskly paced without rushing, and that you are super concise. It might be possible that you invite interruption by being hesitant or—the kiss of death—long winded and repetitive.
Second, leverage technology. Given the ease and availability of video technology these days, there is no reason for you not to be on camera. Things are always better when everyone can see each other. A global asset company must have video conferencing available; but if not, use Skype or Zoom. If you work from home, make sure the area behind you looks spiffy and professional—and make sure you also look spiffy and professional, if only from the waist up. Nobody needs to know you have bunny slippers on underneath the desk. If you don’t have an office, use a conference room. I don’t care if it is 5 a.m. your time, it really makes a difference to make the effort.
Finally, put up the hand. The truth about people who interrupt is that they generally aren’t even aware they are doing it. They are extraverted thinkers who are afraid to lose their thought or idea in the moment. Or they are impatient and excited about the topic.
Okay, some really are just jerks, but not as many as you might think.
But remember: these folks interrupt only people who allow it—plain and simple. So practice a new behavior and some language that sends the signal “cut it out.” The key is to never sound annoyed, but to keep an anticipatory look on your face like you can’t wait to hear what they have to add once you are finished. I hate to tell you to smile but it never hurts, especially in the US. In the US that is true for both genders.
“Please let me finish.”
“Hang on a sec, I’m not done.”
“Can you hold your idea until I complete my thought?”
I mean it when I say practice, so enroll a friend or significant other and practice lines like these with different scenarios. I can’t tell you how many clients I have worked with—more women than men, but this is a fairly common situation—who have done this and have seen it make a huge difference. If you commit to becoming someone whom others do not interrupt, you can make it happen (unless you run for President of the United States, in which case, apparently, all bets are off).
To be fair, it is incredibly challenging to do this with a boss—and harder with a boss’s boss. So think about initiating this move in a private meeting, rather than in a group. Once a person gets the request once or twice, they will often cease and desist.
So be prepared to be brief, concise, and compelling in your presentations. Self identify as someone who does not get interrupted. And practice putting up the proverbial hand. Honestly, you have made it to VP in a global asset management firm—everyone thinks you are smart and worthy of respect. Be bold.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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