Navigating a Meeting with a Mansplainer

Mansplaining is not a very popular term for a number of reasons, primarily because men (understandably) tend to be offended by it. Not all men are Mansplainers and not all Mansplainers are men. Not all Mansplainers content themselves with explaining to just women. Often men can be victims to Mansplainers. But the reason this term was really born is because more often than not, it is women who find themselves being given unwarranted or unasked for advice. 

The idea of this article is to give you some tools to deal with Mansplainers in the context of a meeting with multiple people attending. Often these types of communicators can derail or cause a meeting to go much longer than necessary. I also have to put my hand up here and say that I’m honestly still trying to figure out how to navigate this. A large part of writing this post was so that I could research what other people are saying works for them. 

Zoom fatigue

I’ve also noticed that this problem has become much more pronounced recently with COVID-19 and the move to working from home and video conferencing. With meetings held via video conference there is inevitably a delay whenever someone starts or stops speaking. It’s much easier to interrupt someone because that delay causes that awkward crossover moment when two people are speaking at once. Then one or both of you will stop talking. Spoiler alert – the Mansplainers are never the first one to stop talking when two people are talking at once. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to play ‘chicken’ with Mansplainers to see who the first one to stop talking will be. 

I’ve spoken to some female colleagues who have given up trying to participate in team meetings or in group settings. It’s just easier to have your camera off and sit in the background of a meeting rather than be constantly interrupted whenever you try and share a point. It worries me that we might lose some important ideas because female employees, especially the less outgoing ladies, won’t get to have their voice heard. I’m also not saying here that victims should have an obligation to sort these problems out themselves. In a team setting, raise this as an issue with your manager or HR. I also think managers have a responsibility to be the conductor of meetings to make sure that every person is heard and that the orchestra sounds in harmony. 

So, what can we do about it exactly? See below for some tips on how to handle a Mansplainer.

Tit for tat – interrupt back

There is nothing stopping you interrupting someone who has interrupted you. There are a number of ways to do this that are polite and professional – but also firm to send the message that the interruption was impolite. 

Firstly, one method I’ve seen is called ‘building a bridge’. This is where you interrupt when the person takes a breath, and link your content to whatever they were speaking about. It makes it sound like you are acknowledging their point and not entirely disregarding it. In my own personal experience I’ll admit that this seems to be a classic tactic of Mansplainers to make them sound like they are adding to your own point when often they are repeating content that you have already shared. Turn the tables and use this to get back to exactly what point you were trying to make. This is not an invitation to hold a meeting hostage and speak the whole time, but rather to make sure your voice is heard and not drowned out by other louder voices.

Another method I’ve found is much more direct where you just say something along the lines of, “If you could just let me finish this thought”. This will allow you to make your point that you hadn’t finished speaking and the person was in fact interrupting. 

“Are you an expert?” Ask questions

If the Mansplaining is a little more persistent, you can challenge the knowledge or experience of the person doling out the opinion. Again, do this in a professional way. I wouldn’t recommend sarcastically asking “Are you a detective?” when they are telling you something you already know – no matter how tempting that may be. 

What I mean is, when someone is challenging one of your ideas without any basis, you can ask them the source of their information or an example of where the idea has been applicable. This tactic was recommended to me by a colleague when dealing with an outside vendor who is disagreeing with advice that they have hired you to give. Ask them questions to validate their opinion and then they get stuck in a circle of trying to justify an opinion that probably has no basis.

Don’t get angry!

I’ll admit – I’ve been here before. I’m not proud of it. But I got so frustrated with a colleague that I snapped at him and started talking over top of him. Unfortunately as luck and karma would have it, it was an occasion he did have something valuable to add – as my manager was quick to explain. He also became really quiet for the rest of the meeting – which should never be the objective. I don’t want my voice to become the only one at the expense of everyone else.

Confront them?

This leads me to the final point – confrontation. I’m reticent on this point because in my experience I haven’t personally found this one works. I also don’t know that I’ve had the courage to address this properly with a colleague before. My biggest fear about talking to someone about this – particularly someone I have to work with every day – is that they will stop working well with me. It’s essentially the fear of them not liking me anymore. 

My mentor has encouraged me to confront the people doing it because how else can they learn if they don’t know what they are doing wrong?

My response to this is two-fold. One, I don’t think I should have to tell colleagues that making a meeting about themselves and not leaving room for others to speak is wrong. I shouldn’t have to say that interrupting people is rude. Two, I’m afraid that when I have that conversation, I become “that girl”. 

This is a common trope for women in the workplace who experience sexual harassment and speak up. But I feel it also applies in other situations, when you feel like you’re going to be the troublemaker. The one who complained. Someone who had to ask for permission to speak in meetings, instead of being confident enough to take control herself. But when I do interrupt, I run the risk of being labelled as “aggressive” instead of “assertive”. Either way, how do I come out the other side of this being a winner?

I’ll be honest here when I say I really don’t have all the answers to this one. I’d love to hear what you are finding works in the workplace because leaving this post on a cliffhanger is killing me. Comment below any strategies you have found work for you!

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