The Professional Way to Think on Your Feet

No, you can't plan everything. But you can improve the way you respond to the unexpected at work.

Published: Sep 5, 2019

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You're presenting in a meeting when suddenly the most senior person in the room interrupts to ask a hard question. Your mind goes blank and you hear yourself saying words that may or may not be intelligent.

We've all been there, but that doesn't make it any easier. Being blindsided is stressful, and having to unexpectedly switch from one line of thinking to another can take its toll: research shows that when you're asked to switch between even predictable cognitive tasks, your productivity suffers and you're more likely to make mistakes.

If your brain is too cluttered to even digest the question the first time, ask for the person to repeat the question and wait.

And yet, unpredictability is an inescapable reality of work, and how you handle these moments goes a long way toward how leaders think of you for future opportunities. In one survey, 26% of respondents rated unpredictability as the biggest contributor to stress in the workplace. Some people-politicians, celebrities-always seem poised when a curveball comes flying at them. That's because they've prepared for this kind of high-stakes pressure. Here's a taste of the strategies that help those people thrive when uncertainty comes their way.

Take a moment to regroup.

It sounds so simple, and yet the majority of people completely forget to do this: take a deep breath. Not only will it help your sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response) cool down, but it may make you look more intelligent and trustworthy. According to a study by researchers at Columbia University, taking pauses while speaking correlates more with truthful speech. If your brain is too cluttered to even digest the question the first time, ask for the person to repeat the question and wait. "The person will often rephrase the question into something that's clearer and simpler to answer," says Dave Popple, president of the Psynet Group management consulting firm. Then before you give your answer, start by setting expectations with a phrase such as "I have one thought" or "I have two ideas." That tells your audience what to focus on, and helps you know when to stop talking, says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Val Olson.

Build your self-awareness.

By nature, if you have to think on your feet, you're not prepared. But improving your overall confidence helps you feel more comfortable with unpreparedness. One way to do this is to start or end each day with meditation or journaling, says career coach Kristina Leonardi: "Carving out intentional time to detach from stimulation and distractions creates the ability to be fully present in critical moments."

Another tactic is to get comfortable with hearing the sound of your own voice-something many of us struggle with. For example, if you typically shy away from asking a question during a meeting, you might start by forcing yourself to raise your hand. Career professionals say tiny actions like this will build confidence and make it less scary when you're unexpectedly called upon.

Think of the conversation as a dance.

It's easy to view an unexpected situation as something we must immediately protect ourselves from. But if you take a different approach, it can help you respond better. Olson recommends viewing the person asking the question as the lead dancer and yourself as the following partner. By paying attention to how the person leads, your emotional intelligence will provide insight into how they're asking, not just what they're asking. "Most of us are focused on ourselves, but if we're truly tuned in to what the other person is saying, we disengage with our internal dialogue and are better able to answer what they're truly asking," Olson says.

When in doubt, ask for more time.

If you simply don't have the answer, give yourself permission not to respond right away. "Asking for more time demonstrates integrity and presence of mind," says Yuri Kruman, author of What Millennials Really Want from Work and Life.

If you know what you want to say but don't feel it's an appropriate discussion for a group setting, ask if you can table it until after the meeting. "You're communicating that you take their request seriously, and it appears that you're respecting the time of the group," Popple says.

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