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How Interruptions Can Make Meetings More Inclusive


Mar. 22, 2021 Harvard Business Review

I’m sitting in the back of the meeting, watching the minutes tick by, unsure how to interrupt the continuous flow of voices competing for airtime that make it harder and harder to get a word in edgewise.

I’m an extrovert/introvert mix by nature, but when the stakes are high and opinionated personalities crowd into a room, my default pattern is to shrink away from competing to get my opinion heard. I’ll often leave a meeting kicking myself for having contributed little or nothing at all to the conversation.

Many leaders today find themselves struggling to perform in high-pressure (and these days, usually virtual) meetings, either because their performance anxiety causes a heightened level of fear and paralysis, or because they end up having to compete with bosses and coworkers who overtalk and take up more than their fair share of space in the room. Still others work valiantly to insert themselves but are passed over or rendered invisible or silent because of implicit bias or exclusive group norms.

Whatever the cause, for both leaders who struggle to be heard and bystanders who want to hear more from quiet colleagues, the skill of interrupting can be helpful to practice to disrupt group norms and bring out reserved voices.

For example, my client, Max (not his real name), is an HR leader at a Fortune 500 company. He spends most of his days answering hard questions with polish and candor. But recent feedback from his colleagues revealed that he’s perceived as avoiding hard, messy conversations around diversity and inclusion, and he admits that when he doesn’t know the right words, he can freeze or clam up in meetings.

For two months now, Max has been trying out a new practice when this happens: interrupting. Whenever the conversation moves toward a tense or complicated topic, Max inserts himself by saying, “I get that this is messy, and I want to try to share my perspective,” which allows him to participate powerfully and paves the way for him to share imperfectly. This simple practice has helped him stay present and vocal in these hard subject areas. It also invites others to participate in these challenging conversations.

Interrupting is controversial. When we’re interrupted while speaking, we can feel disrespected, and men tend to view women who interrupt as rude. Conversational style can also play a part in how a person views an interruption, as can cultural context.

However, as we work toward more inclusive workplaces, leaders can learn how to interrupt with respect to make space for the voices that are often silent or marginalized. The following tips can help you skillfully interrupt and bring yourself and others forward.

Start by noticing.

Observe the conversational dynamics and patterns in the room. Who’s talking a lot and who isn’t? Tune into self-awareness to notice your own contributions. Are you holding back? Are you oversharing? Evaluate how much psychological safety exists in the meeting and consider the topics that aren’t being voiced aloud. You can also review a video recording of the meeting to notice the patterns that aren’t visible in the moment.

Practice speaking up early.

If your tendency is to hold back, try speaking up in the first 30% of the meeting. When we take a risk and use our voice early — even in a simple act of noticing and naming — we can interrupt our brain’s proven fear-based amygdala response, making it easier to speak up later in the meeting. Answer a question early on or make small talk with a colleague before the meeting starts to habituate yourself to speaking up and make it easier to contribute when the stakes are higher.

Pause the action skillfully.

In the book Subtle Acts of Exclusion, authors Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran stress the importance of interrupting microaggressions in real time with a simple phrase to pause the action while putting the other person at ease. Witnesses can interrupt by stating a helpful intention: “Can we pause to discuss something that was just said? I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it, but…” This is a moment to reinforce the relationship by communicating that you want to help, calling the other person in instead of calling them out.

Be willing to get it wrong.

In coaching, the skill of blurting helps give permission to be clumsy, messy, and human in our attempt to speak our truth. Blurting asks that we be willing to not know the right words or have the perfect way to name what we need to say. Blurt by using “I” statements to ground your observations in your own experience. For example, “I noticed that Karim was going to say something back there, can we go back?” or, “I noticed that I was holding back just there about something hard,” or, “I noticed that there’s something I want to say that’s messy, can I take a moment to try to put words to it?”

Design practices for interruption as a team.

Interrupting successfully as a team requires building a group norm of doing it with skill and respect and to not take it personally. Do your work’s cultural norms welcome interruption or punish it? Which topics and people can currently tolerate interruption? For whom is it not safe or accessible? Start a discussion to make your team aware of these dynamics.

In the practice of interrupting, clumsiness and awkwardness are a sign that it’s working. Over time, you’ll find it easier to insert yourself in spaces and make it safe for others to do the same. You’ll become more adept at finding the right moment to interrupt with fluidity and humility, and the systems and spaces you’re a part of may even come to welcome the interruption.

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