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Taking up space at work isn't easy. Here's how employees can speak up for one another

Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Getting interrupted. Getting ideas stolen. Being talked over and ignored in meetings. This happens to women, people of color and marginalized workers a LOT.

As I (Stacey) was researching and writing my book, Machiavelli For Women, and exploring issues like the gender pay gap, the gender promotion gap and harassment, I would often talk these topics over with friends and colleagues. And the topic people always got the most excited and worked up about? Interruptions and idea-stealing.

This really surprised me. Getting interrupted or having ideas stolen is certainly no fun, but it seemed like such small potatoes to me. After a while, though, I began to understand. Getting interrupted is a small thing, but it's also a powerful symbol of status in a workplace.

On a more practical note, being heard is key to everything. If nobody hears your ideas, how are you going to get those ideas off the ground? How will people know you have awesome ideas and give you a promotion? In all of these areas, women struggle. LGBTQ workers and women of color also report not feeling heard. And, in fact, studies have found that Black women's statements are forgotten or misremembered significantly more often than those of white women.

Truly, this happens to all marginalized workers, no matter where they are working.

This, I thought, was at the heart of why everyone was so interested in this topic. And before I researched solutions, I wanted to see where this was all coming from.

For Tina Opie, a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School and the head of Opie Consulting Group, the answer is obvious: "What's really going on is power," she explains. "When you interrupt someone, you're trying to see who is at the top of the pyramid and who's at the bottom."

In certain cases, this is super obvious. The CEO is at the top of the pyramid, and the intern is at the bottom. The CEO might interrupt the intern, but the intern probably will not interrupt the CEO. Sometimes there are some more complicated issues at play, including gender, race and sexuality.

So what should you do when you get interrupted or talked over or have an idea stolen in a meeting? Here are four ways to be heard in the workplace. I've included upsides and downsides because one thing I learned in researching women and marginalized workers is that solutions are always messy and imperfect.

Call it out

/ Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

If Ralph interrupts you while you're proposing an idea, you speak right up: "Excuse me, Ralph, I was talking. I'd like to finish my thought."

This has major advantages. You're immediately shutting down the toxic behavior, and people are probably less likely to interrupt you in the future. Also, this solution comes with enormous emotional satisfaction.

Still, there are some downsides to this.Cecilia Ridgewayis a sociologist at Stanford University and the author of Status: Why is it Everywhere? Why does it matter? She says research shows that when women speak out like this or speak in a way that's perceived to be aggressive, it can have real consequences. People will often have a negative reaction and "see you as being domineering and self-promoting," she says. That can do real damage over the course of a career, Ridgeway says, potentially making people less likely to put you in charge of projects or promote you. It's not fair, of course, but it can have a real impact.

This isn't necessarily true for men. Ridgeway says men will often be admired for speaking up, being assertive or pushing back.

Call it out (softly)

/ Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

This is an option that a lot of people, especially women, will use naturally. It employs something called a softener. Softeners are language or tones used to equivocate or soften a statement. It can be a phrase like "I just think" or ending a sentence with a question. For instance, Ralph interrupts your idea. You wait for him to finish his sentence, and then you jump right back in. "Oh yeah, Ralph. I love what you're saying. I think that actually relates directly to what I was just saying..."

Ridgeway says softeners are a way for people to acknowledge their low status while still speaking up in a group or introducing an idea, both of which are high-status activities.

Softeners get a lot of flak, but there is a serious upside. Namely, they work. Studies have shown that when women use softeners, it actually increases their influence with men.

Of course, using softeners comes at a price. "People are more likely to listen to you, but it can undermine your message," Ridgeway says. People are less inclined to take your softened ideas seriously, even if they do listen to them. She recommends pairing softeners with confidence. Instead of saying "Sorry" or "Could I just say something?" Ridgeway recommends something like, "This might sound crazy, but what if we tried X?" or "I totally get why everyone is wanting to change directions, but I really do think we should stick with what we're doing."

Those are still softeners, but they have some swagger to them.

Play the long game

/ Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

The long game is when you don't react at all: You get interrupted. Your idea gets stolen. And you don't react in the meeting. Instead, you wait and observe.

Opie says this can be a good tactic, especially if you're in a new workplace or with a new group of people.

"When someone interrupts us, we tend to have a hot reaction," Opie says. "It doesn't feel good to be interrupted, so I have learned not to immediately respond. I tend to write down what I'm thinking."

Opie says she asks herself these questions: Is this person interrupting everyone? Only women? Only people of color? Only me? Is this a culture where everyone interrupts everyone? Where everyone interrupts women? Is it just this one person?

Then, she'll decide how to respond. Opie says she "might approach them directly and say, 'Hey, what was going on in that meeting? You interrupted me. What was up with that?'"

That way, you're not shaming the person in public, but you are addressing the behavior, and making sure the person is aware they are doing it. This is also a moment where you can build or deepen a relationship with someone or have a conversation that could create real change going forward. They could even become an advocate for you in the future.

The downside is that the long game is really difficult in the moment. It takes a lot of discipline, and you might pay a price emotionally. Also, it is allowing the behavior.

But Opie says it's important to remember, being heard in the workplace is not about one meeting or one idea.

"I give myself the advice: 'Tina, you don't have to fight for every idea in every meeting.' Because, unfortunately, what I think can happen is that you're constantly saying, 'That was my idea! That was my idea!' You begin to lose influence," she says.


/ Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Opie says this is, by far, her favorite solution to getting interrupted. And it has a bonus benefit as well. She learned the amplification strategy from an article in The Washington Post about women in the Obama administration. Their ideas weren't gaining momentum in the ultra-cutthroat White House, so they teamed up to create a solution: One woman would make a point in a meeting and, immediately, another woman would repeat the idea and commend it. And then a third woman would chime in and move the idea forward. And voilà: The original idea gets said, repeated, supported, and amplified. "It works," Opie says. "It's amazing how well it works."

Sharita Gruberg, vice president of the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, says amplification can work in other ways, too: You can call it out when other people are interrupted. "You know, like, 'I'd like to hear what Sharita started saying!' That's also really helpful. You, individually, can advocate for others and speak out when you see those practices happening."

There's another benefit to speaking up on behalf of others when they get interrupted. Remember, research shows us that women and other marginalized workers will often experience backlash if they speak up for themselves or their ideas. But they will not typically experience that backlash when they speak up for someone else. People won't have negative associations with a woman who defends other people and helps them be heard.

Certainly, meetings are changing a lot right now. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, the dreaded Slack Huddle. This technology is changing our routines and the power dynamics in workplaces, and it can make it harder for people to speak up. But it can also offer an opportunity to set new standards and change our communication for the better.

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Janet W. Lee, with engineering support from Marcia Caldwell and Kwesi Lee.

The comic was illustrated by Connie Hanzhang Jin and written in collaboration with Tina Opie.

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Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Janet W. Lee
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