A few years ago a seemingly innocuous moment, for a short time, became a pivotal moment. During a panel discussion at the World Science Festival, held in New York, theoretical physicist Professor Veronika Hubeny was sitting on stage, with three men to her left and three her right. The host posed a question to her, Hubeny attempted to respond – but was unsuccessful. Instead the host interrupted her continuously to speak over her, explaining her own theories back to her until an exasperated voice shouted, quite suddenly, from somewhere behind the camera. “Let. Her. Speak. Please!” For a second, the panel was quiet.
Inevitably, the video went viral. Perhaps because it was a clear example of the insidious behaviour we all experience, especially in the workplace. Being interrupted can feel undermining and frustrating; the act can disempower us in an instant and even hold us back as we progress in our careers. It’s a power struggle that occurs more frequently than we like to admit. It’s not just the guy who won’t let you get a word in edgeways, but also that one colleague who constantly pops up on Slack to eat into your time.
Interruptions are big business. In fact, one much-cited University of California, Irvine (UCI) study claims the average worker switches task every three minutes throughout their day and takes around 23 minutes to focus again. This can cost us up to six hours per day – or 28 billion wasted hours per year, collectively.
“I’m 18 years into my career,” says brand innovation manager Nina Singh*, 38, “and it’s something I deal with constantly. Not only does it eat into your time, but being repeatedly interrupted by someone else is annoying and belittling. I’ve noticed it’s a trait in certain characters. I’ve tried many methods to try and combat it – or contain it – over the years.”
Of course, not all interruptions are designed to undermine. Many are not even intentional. As Covid-19 forced the working world to hunker down and install Zoom, it’s become even easier to speak over each other. While we’re conditioned to recognise when it’s appropriate to speak – an almost imperceptible pause of 240 milliseconds for Brits – video calls don’t exactly make for smooth conversation. With no direct eye contact and a significant lack of body language, our abilities to hold ground are impacted. We might even find ourselves interrupting others more, too. "Technology provides many, many more opportunities for interruption,” Clive Thompson, New York Times contributor who has written extensively on interruption science, says, “but our reliance on email – plus Slack, WhatsApp and any other type of instant messengers and any other sort of DM – means there's much more than just verbal interruption slowing us down.
“It’s not just that we’re being interrupted frequently, but our work winds up being like a stone skipping across the surface – we dip into a subject irregularly. It’s no wonder we feel out of sorts,” Thompson explains. “The other thing Gloria Mark [who led the aforementioned research on interruption for the UCI] pointed out was that a large majority of digital interruptions were what psychologists would call self-directed.
“What that refers to is the scenario where there is no external interruption, like an email or a ‘ding’ from a message arriving or an alert popping up on a screen, and yet we voluntarily stop what we’re doing to check our inboxes in anticipation of an interruption.”
Despite protestations that we’d love to work interruption-free, we’ve become socialised to expect it so frequently that we willingly seek it out. It makes sense – we’re now often expected to check our email (at the very least) outside contracted hours, especially as we climb the ladder. Perhaps our fear of the consequences of being unavailable or late to respond has impacted these habits?
Thompson continues, “Add into that the idea that many huge global companies, especially social media ones, have made it a central part of their business model to interrupt you, and you can see why it’s become more difficult to get simple tasks done.”
But, he adds, many interruptions are essential. "Part of our jobs might require being interrupted with more urgent matters, or interrupting someone else to get a more pressing point across. This is an important skill, too.”
“I’ve always been an interrupter,” Margaux Palacios, 29, a marketing exec from Paris living in London, says. “In my last job, it was seen more as an assertive quality and something that you had to do to be heard. I naturally process information by saying my ideas about it out loud – interjecting with questions and points – mainly because I worry I’ll forget something important that should be considered, and the chance won’t come up to raise it again.
“In my current role, I’ve tried to adapt to suit a different attitude among my colleagues and bosses. I try to write down my ideas and find another time to raise them if they’re still relevant. While I’m keen to make sure I’m heard, I’m always conscientious of not causing someone else to lose their flow while speaking or working. It’s not always easy when others are also trying to be heard.”
Interruptions are especially costly for women. It’s no coincidence that “manterrupting” has made it into the Macmillan dictionary. “Women speak less in meetings not only because they are often ‘manterrupted’,” the submission proffers, “but also because, evidence suggests, women are actively punished for making themselves heard.”
Considering that women remain chronically under-represented at the top, despite much public discussion, legislation and verbal commitments to gender parity, it doesn’t come as a surprise. A government-backed review late last year showed there is still “little sign of change” to the number of women in chair roles (just 25 in the FTSE 350) or other senior roles in business, despite there being “no shortage” of clearly competent and capable women. A plethora of reasons contribute to the gender gap – too many to list here. But could being interrupted at work be one of them?
Well, yes. Attitudes towards women in the workplace are not only absorbed by men when it comes to interruption. Women are also more likely to interrupt another woman than they are a man, while men are more prone to interrupt women and themselves (they have a more relaxed attitude towards self-interruption since their time is usually more flexible – less laden with caring responsibilities, for example). “Being interrupted constantly cost me so many hours at one point in my career,” Rose Stokes, 32, says, speaking of her role as an events coordinator. “Everyone seemed to want to talk to me – in person, on the phone, on email. It was really overwhelming and I could never regain enough concentration in the open-plan office once I was interrupted. I ended up staying until 9pm most nights and working weekends to catch up. I don’t have kids so technically I was able to. But that’s not fair or sustainable.”
So how can we try to combat how often we’re interrupted – verbally, digitally, or of our own accord – and regain control of our time?
One obstacle many come across is that interruption verbal or otherwise is ‘sanctioned’ by management, or at least not managed. Start by trying to establish a strategy to contain it, either by approaching a manager or implementing rules as a manager. “In terms of technology interruptions, setting time boundaries of when you’ll be available to reply to certain people is useful. That goes for personal relationships, too,” Thompson says.
When it comes to verbal interruption, there are two methods you can try, according to Viv Groskop, author of How To Own The Room and newly released Lift As You Climb. “The first is the simplest,” she writes, “Use the device of ‘thank you’. This is where you divert the attention in a meeting back on to yourself by opening with the words ‘thank you’. ‘Thank you – you totally get it,' or the like.
“The second trick you can use to pull focus on to you, especially if you’re unconfident about interrupting your interrupter and getting the power back, is to make sure that whatever you’re about to say begins with a consonant. The harder the consonant the better. So, something like ‘Great idea’, ‘What springs to mind for me’ and so on.”
Why? “Interruptions when we’re speaking can make us feel a little weak and annoyed, and that emotion can seep into our voice,” says Groskop. “An interruption that starts with a vowel can underline the hesitancy you’re feeling. And the consonant trick reminds you to push your voice forward and be definite in what you’re saying.”
Finally, she says, advocating for each other and respecting each other’s time to speak (or even work in peace for a few hours) can not only help our colleagues, but will elevate us, too. Let her speak, and you’ll be heard.