Tuesday, February 23, 2010

7 ways to dive in with effective interruptions

On The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, reader Emily Culbertson referenced a recent post on Madeleine Albright, who urged women to "learn to interrupt," and posed the perfect follow-up question: But how? Here's what Emily wrote:
In meetings or smaller groups, what are polite but effective ways to interrupt speakers that Madeline Albright references? I agree with her that speaking up is important and waiting for permission is a problem, but I am having trouble picturing my options.
For many women, interrupting in person can feel like diving into the deep end.  Try these options in your next meeting when you feel you need to interrupt:
  1. Don't ask permission. Just say it:  Putting up your hand as if you're in class, asking the chair or prefacing your remarks with "Can I just say something?" all make for weak ways to wedge your comment into the conversation.  "Where are the data on that?" or "I don't remember asking him to do that" work better because they are simple and direct, not apologetic.
  2. Do ask.  Questions can be seen as the "polite but effective" interruption because they seek to advance the group's knowledge, so exhibit your curious side in your next meeting. You'll be even more effective if your questions are not seen as leading ones ("Isn't it true your department never gets the billings done on time?"), but as content-laden, neutral queries that move the conversation forward or settle something that's puzzling you ("How does that compare with last year's on-time record?").  Are you the presenter? Do prepare for those leading questions!
  3. Use "I" statements.  Interrupting seems dramatic enough. But when you load it down by attempting to speak for others ("We don't use that kind of measurement system here"), you're tempting others to chime in and disagree. Couch your interruption by speaking just for yourself:  "I'm not sure I agree with that last statement," or "I'd like to hear more about why you couldn't deliver on time."  You'll be on safer ground, and sound more confident.  If you must refer to the group, add a subtle "ask" verb such as "let's consider," or "why don't we..."  That's more direct than asking permission and moves the ball forward.
  4. Create a bridge to take the topic in a new direction.  "I think Fred's given us a good summary of what's in store next quarter.  But I'm more concerned about how we will do next year..."   Think of your interruptions as a bridge:  Acknowledge the last comment, then create a bridge to the topic you want to introduce, perhaps ending with a question to invite others to participate.
  5. Give us a break.   Sometimes humor softens an interruption and lightens the mood just enough to create an opening for your real question or point.  Add a punchline (done with care) to the presenter's last straight line, then follow up with what you want to say.
  6. Create a team approach, and reciprocate.  Many women collaborate unofficially in meetings by agreeing in advance (sometimes overtly, sometimes tacitly) to ask questions of one another ("I'm curious to hear what Susan has to say on this point") or to create other openings so you can get your point in. Be sure to do this for your colleagues, too.
  7. Are you invisible?  Work the room remotely.   If you're on a conference call, be sure to greet and chat with other callers on the line while you wait for everyone to join, giving them a preview of something you want to work in. "I'm really eager to find out what Joe thinks our prospects are for landing a slot at the TED conference next year," you say, and then, perhaps, they'll help you wedge that in with a helpful "Janet had a question about that. Janet?"  Failing that, work the backchannel.  Send an instant message to the chair, or to a friend in the room who can help steer her way toward opening a chance for you to ask a question.
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