Join John Ullmen for an in-depth discussion in this video Responding to being caught off guard, insulted, or attacked, part of Communication Foundations (2013).
- Imagine you're speaking in a meeting. Someone interrupts, and stumps you, shocks you, or surprises you in a negative way. It could be a tough question you're unprepared for. Or maybe it's an aggressive accusation and your mind goes blank. We've all been there. When you're caught off-guard, you can lose credibility in a flash by freezing up, fidgeting, fumbling for words, or otherwise looking like there's any place in the world you'd rather be right then. So what should you do? Here's an approach I use with clients you can adapt. I call it Down Up Point.
In that moment of being caught off-guard, you don't want to look stunned with a blank stare or bugged-out eyes like you've seen a ghost! And you also don't want to look up or to the side because it can make you look lost or shifty. So as the comment comes in, take it in, and drive it down before shock and surprise registers. Look down toward the table if you're sitting, or down toward the floor if you're standing. Deflect that energy down and in front of you, so to speak, where you can work with it. You avoided a disastrous impression and gained a moment to recover your thoughts and emotions.
As you look downward, put a thoughtful expression on your face that reads, "That's a fair question, "it merits a solid response," even if it doesn't, and then nod a little bit like this. Those initial responses align with an impression of someone thoughtfully processing instead of someone who's scared and clueless. While doing all that, you can buy more time by moving your hand to your chin or hold it like this. Gain still more time by picking up the pace slightly of your nod or your hand movement like this.
All the signals that you're still productively processing, making progress, and that you have a thoughtful response in mind that you'll deliver very soon. Don't worry about responding extensively or brilliantly. All you need to do next is say something to move things forward a step, and buy a little more time. I recommend you include only one or two key points in your response, one or two maximum. That prevents you from getting lost in a web of thoughts and words. You want to be sharp, clear, and concise. Likewise, use decisive body language.
This is where the Up comes in the Down Up Point method. As you respond, after picking up the pace of your nodding or hand motion like this, look up and make direct, confident eye contact and respond with a clear, resolute tone of voice. You're creating an impression that says, "I'm not rattled, I'm poised, and on-point." Say explicitly that you have one or two main points. You sound clear and organized, not confused. In Down Up Point, this is why we call the third part Point. If it's one main point, say something like, "The most important factor to keep in mind is," or "a key consideration in the situation is..." If you have two main points, say something like, "we need to address two main concerns." Remember, you don't need to solve all the world's problems with your answer.
Just get to the next iteration in the dialogue and continue to compose your emotions and gather your thoughts. If appropriate, you can verbally acknowledge that more time is needed, but do it with a self-assured tone and still offer a relevant point or two to show confidence, not cluelessness. For example, "it does merit more research, "and I'll be glad to get back to you after exploring "it further, though two key factors clearly come into play." Next, after signaling up-front that you have one or two main points, articulate your points briefly and concisely and then stop, full-stop.
End your sentence and let it stand! Don't wander verbally to soothe your nerves or anxiety! Simply move the conversation forward a step, see how they respond, and take it from there. You might respond to what they say next, or pick it up from where you were before the interruption. If you're not sure, you can ask a Check-In Question. "Would you like to go further with "this issue or continue with...?" Then fill in the blank with whatever you were covering before. Continue with the cost analysis or continue with the status update.
State your Check-In Question with clarity and conciseness; it's a powerful, confident move, giving them the choice of either path, implying with your demeanor that either is fine with you. No fear, at least not on the outside. Look, if they interrupted you, they might drive the conversation either way anyway, regardless of what you do. This way, you keep showing that you're under control even when they seize control. Practice this sequence step-by-step and get comfortable using it even on a moment's notice. Rehearse it alone or with a partner.
It gets easier to do and feels more and more natural. When you're caught off-guard, don't look guarded. Use Down Up Point to keep your poise and get back on-point.
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- Managing the intent-impact gap
- Designing the content of your message
- Improving vocal delivery
- Adjusting your body language
- Being politically savvy
- Listening to what's said, what's unsaid, and how it's said
- Increasing empathy and trust
- Overcoming anxiety<br><br>
- The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.