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Economy & Business

Life Kit: How to make yourself be heard at work

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meetings - love them or hate them, when it comes to the workplace, they're really important. It's where new ideas are born but also where politics and power dynamics play out. And if you're low in the pecking order, meetings can be a place where you are interrupted, ignored or otherwise made to feel disrespected. Research has found that this happens more for certain groups - women, people of color and LGBTQ and nonbinary workers. Stacey Vanek Smith researched this question for her new book, "Machiavelli For Women." She did this report for NPR's Life Kit.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Getting interrupted happens to everyone, including Supreme Court justices. In fact, this made news a few years ago as part of a study of Supreme Court transcripts published in the Virginia Law Review. It found that female justices were interrupted three times more often than male judges, even though they spoke less often. The study cites many examples. Here is one that includes Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The sound is courtesy of Oyez, and the person interrupting Ginsburg is a lawyer arguing a case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: But when...

KENNETH STEVEN GELLER: Court simply concluded...

GINSBURG: ...You take what the president undertook, which was just to use best average, that doesn't sound like...

GELLER: Under the supremacy...

GINSBURG: ...They had much to - well, didn't...

GELLER: Well, Justice Ginsburg, I think it's the operation of the supremacy clause here.

VANEK SMITH: So if you are getting interrupted at work, you are in truly excellent company. But why is this happening? What is going on here?

TINA OPIE: Well, what's really going on is power.

VANEK SMITH: This is Tina Opie. She has a Ph.D. in management, teaches at Harvard Business School and is the head of Opie Consulting Group.

OPIE: So when you interrupt someone, you're trying to see who is at the top of the pyramid and who's at the bottom.

VANEK SMITH: Opie says this can be very tricky to deal with. Don't say anything? Your ideas don't get heard. Speak up? Well, that can have consequences.

OPIE: For example, the word strident has been used to describe me, and I think it comes because I correct people when they interrupt me or take credit for my ideas.

VANEK SMITH: Opie says she has thought a lot about this issue, and she's come to a conclusion.

OPIE: And what I'm asking myself is, is this leading to the kind of influence that I want to have in this particular team? If it is, go for it. If it's not, then I'm just suggesting that there's a little bit more nuance to this conversation than simply saying, whenever someone interrupts you, correct them in public in front of the group, right in the moment.

VANEK SMITH: One solution Opie likes - a technique called amplification. So Opie first read about this in a Washington Post article written about the women in the Obama administration. They were having trouble feeling heard in White House meetings, and so they developed a tactic.

OPIE: Before the meeting, they would talk with each other. And they might say something like, OK, Stacey, when I get into this meeting, I'm going to talk about cellphones. So when I get into the meeting and talk about cellphones, I need you to say, Tina, I love your idea about cellphones. And then, Janet (ph), I need you to come right behind Stacey and say, Tina's idea about cellphones is amazing.

VANEK SMITH: Opie says this way, instead of having to smack someone down if they talk over you, you have a colleague affirm your idea and then another colleague affirm their idea. You're not getting accused of being strident, and you're finding a way to be heard. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.