In our last post we discussed the widespread tendency of men to interrupt women in settings where the power stakes were high (manterruption) and their tendency to appropriate women’s comments and ideas as their own (bropropriation).
This Really Does Matter
We emphasized that this is not a minor impediment to women’s career advancement. As Dr. Arin Reeves states, “We cannot talk about women’s retention, advancement and leadership in the workplace without exploring what happens when women are constantly interrupted. If women cannot even be heard, can they truly advance into leadership?” We will leave to another day the question of whether asymmetrical communication correlates directly with the abysmal level of women partners and law firm leaders. But there is no doubt that women are seriously frustrated and disadvantaged by this all-too-common phenomenon.
What’s This Really All About?
Interruption may have many causes or represent a combination of ingredients. Some experts consider a lot of interrupting to be a conversational habit, a byproduct of men historically talking more and women being regarded as having less to say. Or maybe in part it’s a geographic or cultural artifact, not necessarily dismissive or unfriendly. Famed linguistics guru Deborah Tannen has pointed out, for example, that fast-talking New Yorkers interpret any pause as a sign that the speaker has finished. Others say interruption may actually signal intimacy, kind of an ‘I interrupt because we’re such close friends’ theory.
But our concern should be with Intrusive Interruption intended to perpetuate power disparity. Since most men can sincerely deny malicious intent, what triggers this interruptive urge? Some experts suggest that the problem may not simply be a power thing, although certainly “interruptions can be used to display or gain dominance,” as George Washington University linguist Adrienne Hancock has said. At the more conscious level, interruption may be a behavioral artifact of the whole men-are-from-Mars-and-women-are-from-Venus thing. Communication scholar Stanley Deetz notes than men may be more likely to see conversation as “a competitive game, while women see discussions as being collaborative, hence expecting and giving space for interruption.”
Many researchers, especially experts in diversity, fasten firmly on the unconscious bias explanation, seeing interruption as a culturally learned response that provides the interrupter with some unexpressed but desirable advantage. Interestingly and ironically, research also has shown that when people believe they are not being biased, they frequently exhibit behaviors that are in fact more biased; whereas people who are willing to examine their behaviors for unintentional bias, become less and less biased. Put differently, people who believe they are not sexist or racist are more likely to make biased decisions because they are not examining their decisions for bias.
How About Some Behavior Mod?
Since we work mostly in the world of law and lawyers, frankly we like the response of one high-powered female litigator: “Let’s cut out all the apologist BS about intentions and attitudes,” she says. “For both men and women, we need to focus on behavior change – on what must be expected, accepted, or rejected in a professional workplace.”
Behavior mod focuses on creating powerful incentives for appropriate social behavior (and disincentives for bad acts). Asking people to simply be something — more virtuous or less destructive – is, in our view, a totally ineffectual tactic. Grown people do not willingly undertake personality transplants, and men will not become less aggressive and self-aggrandizing simply because some “touchy-feely bleeding heart type” asks them to.
Similarly, we see little benefit from bland injunctions like “men need to talk less and listen more” or that women at the table need to “lean in” more, while men should somehow magically become more comfortable “leaning back.” In our view, conversational parity is a matter of learned behaviors, that is, techniques that can either be learned and reinforced by incentives or extinguished by some form of pain.
In A list of practical things we can do to reduce gender bias at work, Elba Pareja-Gallagher cited a list of constructive actions – targeted to men – and developed by Terry Howard and Claire Brown and posted in Catalyst’s MARC (men advocating real change) site. Frankly, a few of these seem a bit naive and unrealistic: “Do not interrupt,” “Take turns talking,” and (our favorite) “Incorporate more nonverbal behaviors that facilitate interpersonal communication, support, and interest.” Oh yeah, that’s easy.
But other items on the list seem like perfectly practical action tactics: “Invite women to meetings that usually are ‘inner sanctum’ only.” “Introduce women into your network.” “Send women to represent the company at a conference.” “Reach out to women to discuss their career goals, instead of waiting for them to come to you.”
Researcher Sheryl Sandberg (see Post I in this series) has some eminently practical suggestions for slowing the cycle where men assert conversational dominance, women hold back, relinquish credit, let their ideas be poached or attributed to males…and then eventually shut down, become more passive and less creative, feel less engaged, and experience anxiety because they fear that somehow they are at fault. Some of her ideas (listed below with a few added ingredients of our own):
- Get Honest: Admit that unconscious bias and communication role stereotyping exists in both men and women. That is, set the stage for addressing the issue and rejecting the flawed communications status quo. We all need to own up to the problem.
- Ban Bad Behavior: Create a “no asshole” rule in your conversational circle or cohort (now sometimes called a “No-Kanye” rule) that explicitly addresses interruption. The idea is that where an explicitly articulated rule is being broken, the group has the authority to call foul. The group sanction is against the behavior, not the communicator’s intent.
- Intervene actively. Stop interrupters in the moment. Tap the table. Hold up your hands in a “stop!” gesture. Nudge interrupters or put your hand on their arm. Better still, speak up: “Wait, please let her finish” or “Hold it, I really want to hear what Donna is saying.” Rehearse some good interrupt-the-interrupter phrases – and have them locked and loaded.
- Applaud: As soon as a woman makes an insightful comment, jump in: “Yes! Good idea, Sandra.” (Don’t forgot to say her name; name recognition goes with respect)
- Support Virtue: Praise and support clients, companies, teams and groups that are led strongly by women. Highlight exemplars – and let them know you are supporting them publicly.
For Women in Particular:
- Enlist a Male Buddy: Find a sympathetic male who realizes how you’re being shut out and make a clandestine pact: ask him to backstop you in meetings – nodding, agreeing, and calling out male interrupters as needed.
- Defend Other Women: Women are shockingly unsupportive of other women publicly. Stand up for female colleagues; if they are going to label a woman as “difficult” or “aggressive,” make them label you that way, too. Let’s #staynoisy like Liz Dolan and identify situations when bias rears its head.
- Practice Power Postures: This does not mean acting like John Wayne. It means to study and practice gestures – “leaning in,” standing to speak (and standing firmly on both legs when you do), gesturing with your palms down, steepling your hands, keeping your hands and arms within your body frame – that convey confidence and authority. Develop a “hold that thought” hand gesture to stop interrupters before they gain momentum. This initially may be uncomfortable, but as confident-appearing trial lawyers would say, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
- Eschew Conditional Statements: Dispense with “Maybe I’m wrong, but…” or “Should we consider this?” Don’t use questions to make statements; make statements. Minimize questions designed only to signal how consensus-oriented you are.
- Find Your Voice: Don’t try to talk like a man. Talk like a strong woman: No uptalk (interrogatory inflection). Use short sentences. Practice a clear drop in pitch at the end of a thought to signal you’re done thinking/speaking (the Brits call this a “full stop). Give inspiring speeches to yourself in the car (including practicing being angry or offended). Join Toastmasters or take a public speaking course if your voice is soft or your manner demure.
Name the Frame: Politely but firmly call out manterrupters and bropropriators as soon as they trespass, emphasizing their behavior but not impugning their intentions: “Gary, I’m being cut short here. Please let me complete my thought.” “Mel, I’m glad you like my idea. You’ve paraphrased my previous comments very succinctly.”
BTW, yelling STFU!, no matter how gratifying, is probably not a successful behavior modification tactic.
© 2015, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.