The Surprising Communication Strategy Women Need to Learn

The Surprising Communication Strategy Women Need to Learn

Author: Lea McLeod

When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked, after her tenure in the State Department, what career advice she had for women. She had one simple response; “They must learn to interrupt.”

Even in the highest echelons of global diplomacy a powerful woman leader needed to negotiate with herself – and the room – for her voice to be heard. It seems hard to believe, but it’s true. Albright overcame the struggle with finding her own voice, and using it on the global stage. But she didn’t do it easily. Her story is filled with examples of hesitation, self-doubt and the fear of “sounding stupid” among her mostly male cohorts. Much like the hesitation, self-doubt and fear that many of your women employees and emerging leaders may find in their workplaces.

Often when I’m coaching women clients, we spend time talking about the concept of “being heard” in a workplace that was conceived of, designed by, and still largely managed by, men.  Though we’d like to think Mad Men ways are well in the rearview mirror, the reality is we’re only two generations removed from that time, and there’s still a lot of work to do.

To be clear, talking about communication strategies for women isn’t about them “doing it wrong” or needing to change whom they are. It’s about acknowledging the masculine DNA of our workplace, helping them acquire the skills to adapt to it, and develop the sense of empowerment that will ultimately change it.

Today I want to share one key strategy that will help you and your women leaders hone their ability to be heard in important conversations and decisions.


Who Interrupts More, and Why

The topic of the interruption, also known of late as the “manterruption” is a hot one in the media about today’s workplace. You only need to recall the cringe worthy manterruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMA’s by Kanye West. “Taylor,” he said as he took the stage, and the mic from Swift’s hand, “I’m really happy for you. I’m gonna let you finish, but…” Ms. Swift likely spent a good deal of time thinking about a thank you speech. But did she ever imagine – or prepare for – such a shocking interruption?

The reality is men and women are socialized differently around interrupting. It’s considered a desirable quality in young men, but not in women. Studies show interrupting is rewarded in the classroom and teachers engage more often and more dynamically with boys who do. When boys shout out an answer they are listened to. When girls do the same, however, they are instructed to raise their hands.

In the home, parents interrupt daughters twice as often as they do sons. And they have a higher “politeness expectation” of daughters to boot.

Our cultural tendency to reward interruption in boys and censure it in girls carries into the workplace. There, studies show men take up on average 75% of a meeting. In doing so, they interrupt twice as often as women do. And when they do interrupt, they are three times as more likely to interrupt women, as they are to interrupt men.

But what about women? The fact is, when they do choose to interrupt, 87% of the time they interrupt other women.


Why It Matters

When women get interrupted, and don’t respond, their ideas get taken and claimed by others. Or, worse, potentially great ideas die. What women are inspired to engage when that happens?

It’s likely your women leaders are wondering “What’s wrong with me?” and spiraling into a confidence shortfall rather than figuring out how to fight fire with fire.

And it’s important to fight to be heard. Why? Because it’s better for your organization. Among the myriad other benefits women bring to organizations, studies consistently show that companies that groom and place women leaders get better financial results.

Organizations can’t groom and place women leaders if they aren’t heard in the organization, or if they don’t know how to powerfully express themselves. Among all the communication skills and devices we encourage women to learn, this needs to be one of them. And that means encouraging them to interrupt, and, to be fiercer when they are being interrupted. So let’s look at how you can help your team members do so.


 The Skill of Interruption

We talk about so many aspects of communication as a skill, why not this one? And like any skill, you can learn it. And look at the skill of interruption from two perspectives; how to interrupt effectively, and, how to respond to being interrupted.

Secretary Albright says, “You listen differently if you think you’re going to interrupt.” In a meeting or conversation, you have to be prepared to interrupt. That means knowing your role in the conversation, what you’re expected to contribute, and the outcome you want to achieve.

And it means listening differently – for the opportunity to interject when it makes good sense. Once you interrupt, you have the floor. So you must have something germane to say.

Here are five situations and what you can say to interrupt, so that you can practice your interrupting skills.

  1. You have a question. Use a good meaty open-ended question, one that will elicit more than a simple yes/no binary response. I believe questions are the most underrated communication tool in the shed. And a question that elicits a pensive, “That’s a good question” from others is a winner.
  1. You have a clarifying comment to interject. Bob may have commented on the budget being zero based, but he’s wrong, and you need to clarify it’s based on run-rate. Time to interrupt.
  1. The speaker drones on too long. Whether conversation or meeting, it’s essential to manage time. When the other goes on too long, quickly interrupt, summarize what you’ve heard, ask if there’s anything else, and move to the next speaker or topic.
  1. The speaker veers off topic. Another great interruption opportunity. If you’re in a meeting, call the speaker by name, and advise them that’s not in the scope of the meeting. Ask the group if they’d rather go down that path, or, parking lot the item for another time. Follow up accordingly.
  1. A meeting is poorly facilitated. Most clients I work with call out unproductive meetings as a bane of their work existence. Don’t check out of those meetings. Instead, reframe it as a leadership and practice opportunity. When others start having one-off conversations in the room, when the speakers go off topic, or don’t seem to acknowledge the participants, you have the opportunity to interrupt and draw attention back to the content at hand.


For added emphasis, use strong body language to support your interruption. Stand up. Point to someone, or the flip chart or the screen. Grab a marker and head to the white board. Walk to the front of the room, or, standing at your place take up more physical space by putting your hands on the table and leaning forward.

You’ll feel more empowered in your interruption, and you’ll draw the attention back to the topic you want to speak about. Remember, this isn’t the classroom, and you don’t need to raise your hand to be heard.


What Would Taylor Do?

Ok, so in her wildest dreams Taylor Swift could not have imagined she’d be standing on a world stage to accept an award for being the best in her field, and someone would step up, take the microphone out of her hand, and make a speech about the artist he believed should have one.

You can hardly imagine.

But think about every time you’ve been interrupted or talked over in a meeting, conversation, negotiation or presentation? Is it really that different? Taylor wasn’t prepared for that particular event. But you can learn from her experience. Your strategy is twofold: 1. Expect to be interrupted. 2. And have a response ready for when you are.


When You’re Interrupted

The first rule of being interrupted is, expect to be interrupted. You can respond to any situation more confidently when you’re not completely surprised by it. If this seems like too big of a first step, take the next couple of weeks and simply notice what you see happening in conversations that frustrate you. How often are you interrupted, or feeling like you’re not being heard as a result? Once you notice how much this comes up, you’ll be more inspired to do something about it.

Then start practicing the words you can say in interruption scenarios. And this includes when you’re being interrupted, or when someone else is.


When You’re Interrupted

Think of being interrupted as a communication transaction that you need to manage. Instead of seeing it as judgment on your ideas, and instead of taking it personally, think of it as a feedback loop that requires action on your part.

Most people who interrupt probably don’t realize they’re doing it; it’s simply an unconscious part of their communication pattern. Interruptive feedback lets you know you need to break that pattern and redirect the conversation.

When you’re interrupted, use simple phrases to take your voice back. Spoken in a slightly louder tone (but not with anger or frustration), and directed specifically to your interrupter, it might look like this:

Bob, (pause) stop interrupting me!

Let me finish, please.

I’m not finished speaking.

I’m not finished speaking, please hold that thought.


And by the way, it’s not just about you being interrupted. If you’re a manager, leader or meeting facilitator, you must ensure all ideas are heard in meetings. Support others who are being interrupted by asking that the speaker be allowed to finish the thought. Women can also use this technique when supporting other women who are interrupted in meetings or conversations.

Wait, let her finish speaking.

Hey, I want to hear what Jayne is saying. Let her finish.

Bob, please hold up while Jayne finishes her comment.


I’m sure there are many variations of these comments that you can come up with. And when you do, you’ll have a complement of tools in the interruption management toolbox. It’s another valuable skill in your communication skillset, whether you’re running a meeting with your staff, or negotiating with the leaders of the free world. You decide. Then take some action, lead from where you are, and set an empowering example that inspires others.

Lea McLeod, M.A. is leadership and employee development expert who loves helping individuals, managers and teams get better at what they do so that their organizations can win in the marketplace. Find her at, follow her on Twitter @LeaMcLeod and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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