How to Minimize “Manterrupting”

Posted by Kristin Arnold on April 18, 2017

To achieve a collaborative consensus, it’s crucial to hear from everyone at the table.  But what happens when you want to be heard, but get interrupted all the time so your ideas never see the light of day?

In a well-known 1975 study, two researchers systematically examined and categorized interruptions by men and women during conversations. They surreptitiously recorded 31 two-person conversations overheard in various public places (coffee shops, drugstores, and other public places in a university community).  The results were staggering: In mixed-sex conversations, men were responsible for all but one of the 48 interruptions they overheard.

These findings have been replicated in more recent research.  In a similar 2014 study with 40 people, in mixed-sex conversations, the man interrupted the woman, on average, 2.1 times over the course of a three-minute dialogue; if his counterpart was male, however, that number was 1.8 times.

So men are more likely to interrupt….period; men or women, and will more likely interrupt a woman more frequently than a man.

But here’s the kicker: The 2014 study showed that women are less likely to interrupt men. Women interrupted the conversation an average of 2.9 times if their partner was female and just once, on average, if their partner was male.

So what’s that all about?

So let’s take a look at the 2015 review of the US Supreme Court dynamics over the last twelve years.  The researchers reported, “Even without adjusting for the low representation of women, the effect is stark. On average, women constituted 22 percent of the court, yet 52 percent of interruptions were directed at them. Overwhelmingly, it was men doing the interrupting. Women interrupted only 15 percent of the time and men interrupted 85 percent of the time, more than their 78 percent representation on the court.”

Even in the bastion of democracy, male justices interrupt women justices and women justices are less likely to interrupt men.

So what should be done about this “manterruption” problem?

We can’t expect women (justices, executives, managers, etc.) to be able to fix the “manterruption” problem on their own.  Women can take responsibility for proactively jumping into the conversation and holding their ground when being interrupted.  Women can also “cut back on a tendency to pose questions politely with prefatory words and phrases like ‘sorry,’ ‘may I ask,’ ‘can I ask,’ ‘excuse me,’ or by addressing the advocate by name. That kind of language gives other justices an opportunity to jump in.”

You can also enlist others on your team to become more aware of this dynamic and appeal to them to play a larger role as a referee or facilitator. Or male team members could simply learn to let their female colleagues speak.

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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

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