Strategy

How to interrupt: Madeleine Albright’s best advice for professional women

Women's Agenda /

A few years ago, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered a small piece of advice that I really took to heart. She said in an interview: “You need to learn to interrupt. Ask questions when they occur to you and don’t wait to ask.”

Yes, women need to break a conversation, speak up, have their say in a meeting, especially those of us who often end up being the only woman at a table full of men. 

You know how it goes down. You have a point or question that’s interesting and beneficial, but before you can even say ‘boo’ the conversation at the table’s moved on. Your great idea gets buried deep within the louder voices of the room, before it ever had a chance to grow up and be brilliant.

So, what to do? Do what Madeleine Albright did. Learn to interrupt.

It’s not easy. For those of us who are on the more humble side of sharing our ideas and opinions, who are perhaps even a little introverted, it doesn’t come naturally.

These points may help (and so will your tips, leave them in the comments field below):

  • Get heard early. Your interruption won’t sound so jarring if the room or meeting you’re interrupting has already heard you speak. So make a comment early on in the conversation. Or take it back one step even further: arrive at the meeting ahead of time and ensure you’re introduced to every person who walks in the room.
  • Don’t bury your head in note-taking. Take a few easy-to-read points to reference while you’re having your say, but keep them short and simple. If you need a more substantial record of the meeting, write as much as you can down immediately at its conclusion.
  • Don’t wait. If you wait for the right moment, the moment will be lost. Interruptions are not about being polite or showing off your excellent dinner table manners, they’re about getting your point-of-view heard.
  • Body language is essential. Sit up, sit forward, be physically part of the conversation. Make it easy to swiftly turn to the person you’re interrupting.
  • Don’t ask permission. Again, this is Ms Albright’s direct advice and I took it on board. Don’t say, “Can I just ask a question?” Leaders don’t ask, they do, they take risks, they put their opinions on the line in a room full of people and they get heard. Just ask Ms Albright. Start with “excuse me”, if you must. But leave the question, and the apology, out of it.
  • Speak up. Once you’ve made the interruption, the room is yours. Take the opportunity to make you’re point clearly and calmly. That doesn’t mean you need to be loud, or to start talking rapidly. Simply sit up and speak up.
  • Be sincere. If you’re going to interrupt and you don’t care about being polite, then good for you. But at least be sincere. Prove that you genuinely have a point to make, or you genuinely want to ask the question. You’re not being rude for the sake of it; you’re merely assisting those in the room in getting the most out of the conversation.
  • Use hand actions to be inclusive. Once you’ve interrupted, turn your head from one side of the table to another while speaking, use hand actions to embrace the room. Get them engaged in what you have to say and they’ll forget the interruption – it may end up being music to their ears (you shut the boring guy up).
  • Stop others from interrupting you. Here’s a tip I took from Nancy Clark, the CEO of Womens Media who interviewed Ms Albright. If you’re having your say, don’t let others interrupt you. Put your hand up to indicate you’re still speaking, or simply say “I’m not finished”.
  • Object to others being interrupted. It’s another way to get your voice heard, and to also show you’re willing to hear from everyone at the table so others at the table should hear what you have to say too. If somebody cuts off another person who is genuinely making a good point, stop them. “Paul hasn’t finished, let’s hear the rest of what he has to say.” The chances are, Paul will return the favour. If not in this meeting, then the next.

Remember, if you don’t speak up you won’t be heard.

As Ms Albright told Women’s Media:

“Ïf women continue to keep their heads down working away, instead of speaking up, they won’t get noticed.” 

That’s just the way it is.

Agree? Disagree? Care to berate me? How do you interrupt meetings?

Meredith is a contributing writer to Women’s Agenda. She is is not a consultant, or a management guru. She’s not even a published author. Just someone who’s made plenty of mistakes, and learnt a few lessons along the way. Women’s Agenda is Private Media’s new site for professional women. To check out the site and sign up for the FREE daily newsletter, click here.

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