Over the weekend I was watching a discussion on tv. It started off as a discussion about whether countries could get involved with matters in a different country. It was a fascinating discussion, with very different view points. They are were all trying to get heard. At one point, one of the speakers pointed it out that this discussion was actually about women’s rights.

And then I suddenly realised what had been disturbing me throughout the discussion.


All throughout the discussion, people were interrupting each other, they were fighting to get heard. And the one woman at the table was constantly being interrupted. Literally all the time.

I recognize this because I was on a radio show recently with two male guests and I found it very tough to get a word in edgeways. The interviewer kept asking the men questions and let them answer at length. First I wondered why they didn’t want to listen to me, then I felt irritated. Especially when one of the guys was incapable of finding the full stop at the end of his neverending sentence.

Moment of clarity

Then I had one of those moments, when you suddenly realise something. ONE – I didn’t know how to get heard and TWO – I needed to learn to interrupt.

Problem is I didn’t know how. I wasn’t taught how to interrupt as a child, in fact I learned it was rude. I was taught to listen. As a result, I’ve built up deep listening skills over the years and this has been very useful.

How to get heard?

But no-one ever taught me how to get heard, how to interrupt someone, to grab their attention and keep it. And it’s tricky to unlearn old behaviour and find more effective ways of doing things.

So, I was fascinated by this discussion. Partly because it was an interesting debate about dealing with very different cultures while staying yourself. Having lived in 5 countries, I find this question intriguing.

May I interrupt you there?

But the main reason for my fascination was that I was focussed on the interrupting.

At one point I realised that the woman was doing something different. Every time she wanted to be heard, she started with ‘May I?’. She was asking for permission to join in. Asking for permission to be heard.

Now this is an experienced, nationally known, career politician with media training, so this isn’t by accident.

Differences in men and women

So I set off to find out more information about interrupting and the differences between men and women.

Here’s an example. Be warned, it may make you very irritated. Which was probably the point of this tactic, to make her flip.

What a professional to keep going and even make a joke. I’m glad it wasn’t me on that stage.

My own experience

I was at a Zoom meeting not so long ago with 4 women, two of which were very happy with grabbing the spotlight and 2 of us were British. We looked at each other and smiled, because we both had the same problem. We didn’t know how to butt in.    

There are cultural differences in interrupting. In some cultures (like mine, British, middle class), interrupting is bad manners and a sign of disrespect. You are supposed to wait your turn. In other cultures interrupting is a sign of enthusiasm, of building a rapport between you and the others. These approaches met at the Zoom meeting.

Power differences in interrupting

And then there are the male/female differences (which turn out to be power differences all along). The most dominant speakers interrupt, they expect to be listened to and that others will want to listen to them. The least dominant speakers get interrupted more. If you are seen as the less dominant party, expect to be interrupted. If you do want to be seen as the dominant party, interrupt and hold your ground.

What to do?

Thing is, I don’t need to be dominant, I just don’t want to get walked over by someone who thinks they are. This turns out to be a tricky thing for women. There’s a double-bind at work. A double bind means that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  

For example: if a woman listens, she’s seen as kind and also less dominant. If she speaks up for herself, she’s no longer seen as kind, in fact she’ll often be seen as a bitch.

That’s why women politicians have to interrupt politely.   

This TED-talk explains how this works:

Tips for novice interrupters

For those of you who recognise this, I’ve found a number of tips. The main tip: don’t interrupt back if you’re irritated or annoyed, because then you’ll start a fight.  So keep calm and use one of these steps. And do it on time, so you don’t get irritated at yourself for waiting too long.   

  1. If you talk to someone regularly who interrupts, they may not be aware they do it.
    1. So, take a quiet moment and then ask them if they are aware of them interrupting you. And how you could help them.
    2. If they repeat the interrupting, you can now say something about it. ”Hey, you’re doing that thing again”
  2. Or wait until they’ve interrupted 3 times, then say “Let me finish”
  3. If you don’t know someone well, repeat their name until you can get a word in
  4. Or just be assertive, hold up hand up (with the Stop sign) and say “I wasn’t finished yet”, then start speaking. Hold your ground.
  5. If that doesn’t work, just jump in and say what you want to say

Click here to read more about watching your boundaries

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