I was excited to hear former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speak at a conference I attended a few years ago. She’s brash, smart and outspoken, the type of woman who will not be silenced. As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she recalled, she went to a United Nations meeting attended by 15 members of the intergovernmental organization’s Security Council back in 1993. She was the only woman. At first, she thought: I’ll just see who’s who, what the mood of the room is and if they seem to like me.
That’s when she saw a sign in front of her that read “United States.” She remembered thinking to herself, If I don’t speak today, then the voice of the United States will not be heard. So she interrupted, making sure her voice was counted. That’s when she said she learned to interrupt—it became her favorite word.
Learn to Interrupt
Perhaps you want to speak up but think OK, I won’t say that, because it sounds stupid. Then, someone else says what you were thinking and everybody is impressed. You’re angry at yourself for not speaking up. Albright says she experienced that most of her life.
That’s when she started to interrupt. Colleagues often criticized her for being so blunt, while others applauded her for expressing her views and not allowing others to silence her.
Male or female, there is a lot to learn from Albright’s tenacity. It’s essential to overcome personal uncertainties. The key is to know what you’re talking about, so you don’t interrupt just to interrupt. Rather, you want to speak in a strong confident voice. There are ways to interject politely. I call them “the insteads.”
- Instead of cutting someone off, say: Please excuse me or Let me interrupt for just a moment.
- Instead of correcting someone, try saying: I understand your concern or viewpoint, but perhaps we can look at it differently.
- Instead of totally ignoring what someone is saying, acknowledge or expand on it: As Brian just said, we can do this… or What do you think if we also did such and such?
- Instead of not responding or not speaking up because you aren’t sure what to say, look for opportunities to ask a question or to clarify, which will help you be heard.
- Instead of burying your head in your notes or your phone, make eye contact with the person leading the meeting or gently hold up a hand to signal you’d like to say something.
“If you’re going to interrupt, you have to know what you’re talking about. And you have to do it in a strong voice.”—MADELEINE ALBRIGHT
“The insteads” are not just for interruptions. They also apply to holding your ground. When I was a television news anchor at a station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had a boss who wouldn’t permit me to read the stock report because he claimed male readers were more credible when it came to delivering business news. I was fuming. Instead of yelling or walking away, I stood tall, purposely moved into his space, looked him directly in the eye and raised my voice just a tad to sound more authoritative when I objected. I didn’t win the argument, but instead of seeing me as someone whom he could silence, he saw me as an assertive, confident employee who wasn’t afraid to speak up.
Here are more tips:
Provide Value. Every time you speak up at a meeting, talk to your boss or address an audience, you make an impression. When you strive to be a regular contributor without talking too much or interrupting too often, you provide value. Be prepared—jot down two or three points in advance and look for opportunities to interject them.
Solution-oriented Examples. Instead of apologizing or making excuses for your opinions, point to facts and solution- oriented examples that support what you’re saying to help naysayers and others see your point of view.
Use Strong Words. Hesitant and self-deprecating language can make you appear unsure of yourself. Replace disclaimers and tentative phrases such as “It seems I get results” or “I hope to have the plan next week,” “I think,” and “I guess,” with more definite language such as “I firmly believe,” “the facts are as follows,” “I’m committed,” and “I would like the plans on my desk Monday.”
Pace and Pause. It’s not necessary to fill the silence. By pausing and giving listeners a moment to digest what you’ve said, you will position yourself as thoughtful, comfortable and more confident in your delivery.
Don’t Bury the Lead. If you want something, state what you want upfront and then back up your main point with facts.
And, here’s a final “instead.” Instead of scowling or looking annoyed because someone is dominating the conversation and you’re struggling to be heard, when you interrupt do so with a smile.
Karen Friedman is an executive communication coach, professional speaker and author. This is an excerpt from her new book Ordinary People: Extraordinary Lessons/Leadership Insights from Everyday Encounters. She is an award-winning former television news reporter and a syndicated columnist for the Philadelphia Business Journal. She teaches leadership communications for executive women at Smith College.