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Speak Up

Is interrupting a good business tactic, or just plain rude?

From a young age, most women are taught to be polite in conversation, but how do these manners translate in a dynamic business conversation, especially in mixed company? Should women learn how to interrupt to be heard?

"I'm an excellent interrupter," says Cathy G. Lanier, 48, president of Technology Solutions Inc., a $2 million-plus software development and consulting firm in Columbia, South Carolina. "I tend to go with the ebb and flow of meetings and am pretty good at timing my interruptions so they don't seem overly rude or pushy. I've never left a meeting where I didn't get my opinions out there for review." Lanier admits she doesn't always wait for an opening, but she tries not to step on others too much.

Social conditioning has dictated that interrupting is bad manners. In business, women often look at interrupting as wrong and apologize when they do it, while men use interrupting as a tactic to make themselves heard. So is interrupting rude? Amy Woodward Parrish, 36, partner and chief marketing officer of Cohn, Overstreet & Parrish , a multichannel marketing firm in Atlanta, doesn't think so.

"I don't intend to be rude--just productive," explains Woodward Parrish. Running a million-dollar enterprise means making sure you're heard in a meeting. "And when I want a conversation to go a different direction, I can usually encourage the client or team member to move toward a different subject without them realizing I'm doing it."

Woodward Parrish does believe other women can get frustrated with "interrupting women," because they aren't accustomed to women playing that role in a meeting.

But what if someone is using interruptions as a strategy to sabotage you? Kendra Todd, one of the competitors on the reality TV show The Apprentice, endured constant interruptions from a male competitor who used the power struggle to try to unnerve her. She persevered and became the first woman to be hired by Donald Trump at the end of the show's third season. She advises women entrepreneurs to be among the first people to speak up in the room--engage in conversation early to be seen as an initiator vs. a spectator. Also, use few words. To get your point across, hone your pitch, and speak as concisely as possible.

Media coach and marketing strategist Susan Harrow, CEO of PRsecrets.com and author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul , has this advice for getting heard:

1. Learn the right techniques. Saying, "I'm not finished yet," or holding up your hand as a stop sign can be effective ways of getting your point across when the going gets tough.

2. Think sparring match. Men aren't interrupting to be impolite--they are testing you. Are you credible? Can you stand up to criticism? Can you prove your point? Don't be afraid to give as good as you get.

Says Lanier, "In the South, rudeness is not accepted, so my interruptions are sometimes couched in humor to give a softer edge, but my points get across."

Aliza Sherman is a web pioneer, e-entrepreneur and author of eight books, including

PowerTools for Women in Business.

Her work can be found at mediaegg.com.

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This article was originally published in the November 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Speak Up.

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