Do People (especially “men people”) Interrupt You?

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To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

e.e.cummings

 

Last month Mari, a department head at an international concern, brought me in to do some strategizing with her team which happens to be made up of all women. Mari reports directly to Mark and he routinely offers more resistance than support. While there was some griping throughout the half-day session, Mari and her team reckoned with what they could not change and then strategized for practical workarounds and next steps.

Afterwards I met with Mark. He had asked to speak with me and I presumed he wanted to discuss Mari and the department. I was wrong! In passing he said she’s a solid performer but that she has unrealistic expectations of people. He then proceeded to talk to me about the five admin. assistants who report to him. He’s at his wit’s end as they take up his time complaining about each other. He said he didn’t know what to do. Pause. “You know how women can be,” he smirked.

I was gobsmacked! His throw-away line was stunning on so many levels. I’m not naïve BUT I seldom encounter a man who is so blatantly dismissive and clueless.

Cut to this week.

Tuesday we had the double-header of an Uber Board member talking smack about women talking too much, coupled with Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, being chastised/interrupted by male colleagues as she questioned Attorney General Sessions during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

An article in the New York Times observed that, “Both incidents triggered an outpouring of recognition for what is commonly accepted as fact – that being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.”

As of Thursday night that Times article has received over 1300 comments!

My friend Deborah, a senior VP at an international financial institution circulated the article among close associates. Here’s just one comment from the email thread:

“When my job was eliminated 12 years ago, two other female first Vice Presidents also were let go, thereby eliminating ALL of my boss’s female direct reports. No men at our level were released, only a few low level men to ‘balance’ the list. And yes, my boss would shoot down my ideas and then present them as his own. It was the price women were supposed to pay for being ‘allowed’ to work in a Man’s World. It’s beyond disturbing that in the 40+ years since many of us entered the workforce this hasn’t changed.

Why is this beyond disturbing? Why would things change? Nothing and no one changes on its own (and if you’re receiving this newsletter, you know me well enough to know I’m not being flippant).

Obviously, this is a multi-layered, vexingly complex challenge. Within the space of this newsletter, though, I want to remind you –

We all do what we do and say what we say AND do it in the way we do it and say it in the way we say it for a reason. No one just is! Men were not born with a gene that compels them to interrupt. Women were not born with special eardrums that allow them to listen more attentively.

We learn how to communicate. We’re socialized to use language. And, yes, stereotypically little girls and little boys are socialized to use language for different purposes. But (there’s always that “BUT”) – take my client, Richard. . .

In our first meeting he told me that he hates when people interrupt him. He thinks they’re rude and disrespectful. He said his team constantly interrupts him.

The following week I sat in on a meeting with Richard and six of his team. Early in the session, one of the team members interrupted Richard and he immediately shut down. Everything about him changed – his face, his posture and his overall “vibe.” However, I thought the team was “lively” and not necessarily rude.

Richard later told me that when growing up his parents insisted that he and his siblings not interrupt when adults spoke – they didn’t allow for freewheeling discussion. The family motto was: “polite people don’t interrupt and we are polite people” (though his father wasn’t quite so polite when he had had affair when Richard was thirteen).

Although Richard wasn’t ready to give up labeling his team “rude” we were able to strategize ways for him not to shut down and not yield the discussion to the person with the loudest voice. He learned to restrain his judgment as well as how to lead a more productive, yet still lively, meeting.

We are each responsible for our voice. Give up your power and you do become a victim.

Easy for me to say – I’m a man and not a woman. However, I’ve coached enough women to know that there are strategies for managing boorish men so as to assert oneself!

This month I feel heartened by a team of dynamic women who continue to find ways to lead despite an incompetent VP.

This month I feel challenged by a group of women who are happy undermining each other much to the amusement of an emotionally dense boss.

And this month I’m relieved that Kamala Harris is not prepared to roll over.

Somehow all of this challenges me – and I hope you – to strive to be more honest with our own self, more demanding and more committed to finding our voice and using that voice from a place of confidence.

To do less would be “beyond disturbing.”

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