Don’t you hate it when you get interrupted in meetings? Or when people talk over you and your point gets lost?

A client of mine said this keeps happening to him at work, and it’s not only frustrating but also demoralizing. Worse yet, he’s all but given up trying to speak up anymore.

The Power Play

In his organization, senior managers are competing with each other for power and respect, and meetings are just another venue for them to jockey for position. Unfortunately, one of the ways they show they have clout is to interrupt others.

In their culture, a deep sign of respect is when you’re never interrupted by anyone else. For example, no one dares to interrupt the head of the division, even if they disagree vehemently with what he’s saying.

But the more junior you are and the less clout you have, the more senior people feel they can interrupt you without fear of reprisal.

Although my client is a vice president, he’s usually the most junior person in the room, so he gets interrupted most often. Including by his own boss. And that kind of “friendly fire”, or getting shot at by people on your own team, hurts even more.

People set the tone

This kind of culture shows the ugly side of human behavior. And it’s so easy to fall into bad behavior when people are busy doing more with less, worried about changes going on in the company, and anxious about their own careers. Unfortunately, this describes many workplaces.

While that may be an explanation, it’s definitely no excuse. This kind of environment and culture brings out the worst in everyone and reduces the creativity and productivity of the organization.

It’s an underlying cause of turnover as people feel undervalued and unappreciated. It makes it hard to bring our best selves to work, much less find joy in what we do. It’s bad for the organization, bad for the team, and bad for the individuals.

It’s also something that would not be tolerated by great leaders who want to get the most from their teams and colleagues.

People set the tone through the culture they collectively create, and people can change it if they are aware and want to.

So what can we do to change the situation?

When you’re in charge

When you’re the one in charge, you have a huge role to play in establishing the norms. In this case, we’re talking about being seen and heard, which is one of the basic human desires. But this applies to other group norms as well.

When we as leaders don’t deliver the kind of environment where everyone is seen, heard and thriving, we can’t expect to get the best from our people. When people have a voice and feel heard, they’re more likely to feel part of the unit and willing to go the extra mile.

But when you’re in charge, it’s not always easy to see the dysfunctional behaviors. That’s why it will serve you well to be approachable as a leader – someone who reaches out to others, creates an open dialogue, and makes it possible for people to come to you and ask for your advice or help without worrying about your reaction.

Another aspect of it is being proactive about building up your team’s confidence by encouraging and empowering them to speak up rather than shutting them down and keeping them small.

When you’re a participant

When you’re a participant but not the one in charge, you can still make a difference.

Often, all it takes is one person standing up and saying, “hold on here, let’s listen to what XYZ has to say…” to change the dynamic.

That person needs to be able to make themselves listened to and heard, which usually means having the respect of the people in the room already. It’s also helpful to sound forceful and to be in the right. As my father in law liked to say, “when you’re in the right, you can’t be wrong.”

When you have the courage to speak up, you give the silent majority someone to rally around to shift the existing norm.

When you’re the one being interrupted

When you’re the one continually being interrupted, it’s trickier, but here are five things you can do.

1. Prepare to speak up

You’ll feel more confident when you know the points you want to make, and have practiced making those points powerfully and succinctly. When you make a point strongly and with conviction, others are less likely to interrupt you. So improve your chances by making the point tight, and don’t ramble or start with apology language. Prepare your point and say it with confidence.

2. Get a senior person on board

If you know the person running the meeting well enough, or even another senior attendee, then you can let them know beforehand that you’d appreciate their support for the points you’d like to make because you’re often interrupted before you can share them fully. You can explain that this is an important dimension you’re working on and that you’d appreciate their help in the room, and feedback afterwards on how to do this better.

3. Build relationships beforehand

Getting to know the people in the meeting beforehand and forming a relationship also can help. When you have their respect outside of the room, it’s easier to get their respect inside the room. That also makes it easier to get someone senior on board to support you in the meeting. Plus, you’ll feel more confident.

4. Find a way to stand out

Again, if you can build your reputation outside of the meeting room, you’ll get more respect when you’re in the room. One sure way to stand out is to be someone who makes things happen that can be seen, heard and felt in the organization. I call this being a “rainmaker” instead of just a “caretaker”, which is someone who just does what’s asked, even if it’s to a high standard.

5. Build on their point

You can choose one of the biggest interrupters and build on their point. Let’s say that’s Tony. You could say, “Tony just made a great point, and that makes me think we should ….”, or “I’d like to pick up on Tony’s excellent point about XYZ…” Then go on to make your point in a way that’s linked to Tony’s.

If you look Tony straight in the eye while doing this (interspersed with looking around at others too), then he’s highly unlikely to interrupt. After all, you’re supporting his point and making him look good. And just so it doesn’t look like you’re playing favorites, you could do this with several attendees of the meeting.

How about your organization?

So start noticing the norms in your organization.

  • Which ones are energizing and empowering to all team members?
  • Which norms are holding people back from bringing their best ideas and best self to work?
  • And where can you flex your leadership muscles to make a positive difference from whatever seat you’re in?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this, so leave me a comment.

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