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Girl, Interrupted — And What You Can Do About It

Hey Tech Lady,

I have a co-worker that constantly interrupts me and doesn’t listen to my input. How can I navigate the situation and assert myself without coming across as aggressive or intimidating?

— Jaime S., Engineer, via LinkedIn


YoInterruptions are something I’m all too familiar with. Between work, three insistent kids, two drooly dogs and a neurotic cat, I’m amazed when I can complete even the simplest task without disturbance and still hold on to my sanity. And that’s up for debate.

Occasional interruptions are an annoyance, sure, but they often lack ill intent, so most of us brush them off pretty easily. It can be a brief, momentary clash or one of those awkward conversations when, for some unknown reason, you and whomever you’re speaking with have different rhythms that just won’t harmonize, so you stumble through talking over each other. Life isn’t scripted, so we live through the outtakes.

Then there’s the at-work scenario, where a co-worker might cut you off in a meeting mid sentence. Maybe it happens more than once, even repeatedly, and with each interruption, your blood boils, your chest burns as you try to stifle the rising frustration. Maybe the interrupter is someone who often doesn’t seem to listen and has a habit of interjecting. It’s not as easy to blow off as in your personal life. And you’re at work, after all, so you can’t tell the switch where to stick their conversation style.

In these situations I’ve found it’s best to resist the temptation, however strong, to pounce like a jungle cat on the least human resources auto-enroll you in anger-management training. An aggressive reply may be instinctual, but resist that urge and be prepared to assert yourself instead.

There’s a big difference between being assertive and aggressive, though we’ve all run across coworkers who may not share the Merriam brothers and Noah Webster’s appreciation of nuance.

While we’re talking about the two ‘A’ words, let’s flip through the ol’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which defines aggressive as “tending toward hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration.” Assertiveness is characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.”

How would you prefer to be labeled? If you choose “aggressive,” you may want to check if there’s another column around called Hey Therapy Lady.

As far as interrupters, I’ve dealt with a few doozies in the past. And since I’m a list person — just ask my husband, who receives epic honey-do lists regularly — here are steps that have worked for me in the past. And share your own experiences in the comments section.


Prepare

Brainstorm and plan your approach, including what you’ll say and the tone in which you’ll say it. Being assertive doesn’t mean you can’t also be polite, so word your response the way you would like to hear it if the situation were reversed.


Ask for advice

If you’re feeling unsure, you can always speak to your manager or a co-worker or peer who you trust. If your manager is the culprit, definitely talk to someone else, but regardless of who you decide to consult, get an outside perspective. Is the behavior noticeable to others? If your confidant is friendlier with the interrupter than you are, do they have advice on what might work best?


keep cool

When talking about the situation, whether you’re speaking with the interrupter or getting advice from a trusted colleague, always keep your tone measured and your words aggression-free. Don’t attack, but don’t soft-pedal either. The key to standing your ground is polite verbiage delivered in a firm, even tone.


No Jerry Springer meetings

Not everything has to be on display for the whole department to see. If possible, schedule a one-on-one discussion with the interrupter. When in a group, temperatures can flare more easily and situations can escalate quickly. Eliminate as many external factors as possible so you can keep your focus on the points being made.


Be ready with retorts

If the sideline conversation doesn’t seem to work and the interruptions continue, prepare a few good in-the-moment responses you can use to stop the interruptions or call attention to your voice not being heard.

“Please, allow me to finish,” is a good one when you’re being interrupted or, in cases where you’re interrupted and ignored, try, “It sounds like you agree with what I said earlier, I’m glad we ‘re on the same page.” This is a professional, assertive way to essentially say, “I know what you’re doing, enough!” Keep the peace and mind your tone to avoid sounding aggressive — or coming off like a smart ass.


If all else fails, escalate

This is not for the faint of heart and should be reserved for more serious situations, such as raised voices, inappropriate words said in anger, or if there’s purposeful intent. You don’t want to escalate every little thing to the point you have a gal-who-cried-wolf situation, but if you decide escalation is warranted, keep a record of the incidents that you can take to your manager or HR. You may find there are others who have the same problem, maybe even with the same person. Escalating your concerns may help others’ be taken seriously and addressed.


Start small, gauge progress after each step and eventually your self-respect will translate into respect from everyone around you.

Have a question or work challenge you could use some help on? Email me at TechLady@forbes.com. And you can read last week’s column about imposter syndrome here.

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