Businesswoman standing at a podium

How to handle being put on the spot

How many times each week do you find yourself put on the spot at work? You’ve just stepped away from your desk to make a quick cuppa when another staff member corners you with a question, or you’re in a management planning meeting and another team leader asks you for some specifics about a different project. 

It can be hard to come up with the answers when you find yourself in these impromptu situations. Here are five top tips on how to handle them.

The power of the pause

Give yourself a moment to get to grips with the question. Take a deep, but subtle, breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. This helps calm the central nervous system allowing you emotional space to think – you don’t want your colleagues to think you are sighing. Make a brief humming noise, or place a hand on your cheek or chin to indicate to the other person that you are thinking but need a moment. 

Clarification is essential

Do you fully understand the question? You might think you do, but scan it for ambiguity. Repeat it back to the person asking it because, when they hear it out loud, it might spark the urge to clarify a point without direct prompt. If you need more information or something specific, then ask a direct question in return. Some people worry about looking foolish but making sure you know what is being asked is professional.  

Assert control

No matter what your answer to the question is going to be, now is the time to convey you’ve got this. You can easily do this through body language. Sit or stand up straight. If you’re standing place your hands on your hips in a ‘power pose’. Turn your shoulders toward your colleague and make eye contact to indicate honesty and integrity.

Structure your answer

If you can answer the question on the spot, then make sure you provide an answer with structure. Make your key point, explain the reasoning behind it, and back it up with an example before reiterating the point of your answer again. Think they’ve asked the wrong question? Then re-phrase the question as part of your response. Let your colleague know why you feel the core of the issue lays elsewhere. If you can’t answer the question don’t be afraid to say so. Perhaps you need to look something up, talk to a college or you think the answer isn’t appropriate at that time, (for example, if it will derail the main point of the meeting.) Let your colleague know a time when you will come back to them.

Follow up

Whether you answered the question or not at that time, make sure you follow up with your colleagues at a later, appropriate juncture. Put yourself in their shoes, understand why they asked the question, and circle back to them on it with additional information, or to reinforce your answer. They may have something valuable to add, and by taking the initiative you will win their trust.

Keen to improve your communication techniques? IMNZ’s Think on your Feet course can help.

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