Put on the Spot? Here’s How to Own Your Response

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: December 12, 2016

No one likes being put on the spot, but it teaches you to anticipate the unexpected, a lesson forever useful in life and in business.

While the digital age and technological advances in communication diminish how frequently this happens in person, face-to-face exchanges are still among the most preferred forms of communication, according to Ballantine, a marketing strategy firm. Most people still favor coffee-table talks. In one survey conducted by Verizon, 87 percent of respondents cited in-person meetings as more creative and productive.

But what happens when face-to-face chats go awry, the conversation pivots in unforeseen ways and you are suddenly asked to perform on the fly? Adapt or die, as they say. Or perhaps less dramatic, learn how to be an impromptu problem solver, what I call a “universal adapter.”

I once met with a prominent family who opted to back one of my clients. Turns out, I wasn’t prepared for them. Every sibling weighed in on business decisions, which presented an unexpected dynamic. The next curveball came when I realized I was essentially auditioning to secure this opportunity. They also asked me to present my business approach on the spot when I hadn’t reviewed any materials or plans. With limited information and preparation, I wasn’t ready to provide that level of detail.

Should I have been more prepared? Yes. Was the situation mildly uncomfortable? Definitely. Still, my predicament suddenly became an opportunity to practice thinking on my toes. I operated from my gut, put my best foot forward and tried to follow the conversation. I responded with as much insight as I could offer. In the end, we moved forward and it was a great learning experience.

With time and practice, my ability to perform as a universal adapter has grown. It’s both a mindset and a muscle that grows stronger every time it’s stretched.

But learning to think on the spot doesn’t happen overnight. With a little finesse and confidence, you can recover the next time a live meeting finds you scanning the floor for answers.

Related: Do You Have Adaptability?

1. Don’t be afraid to buy some time.

When you’re caught off-guard in a meeting, being fast on your feet is obviously ideal. But if you find yourself suddenly panicking, pause. Ask for a short break, even just to use the restroom or take a slow, measured drink of your water or coffee. Use that time to develop an effective response.

Other time-buyers include repeating the question (the person you’re speaking to will see it as engagement on your part rather than a stalling technique) and asking what his or her desired outcomes and expectations are. These simple tactics can turn a stressful scenario into a collaborative problem-solving session. You might have been on different pages before, but now you meet in the middle.

2. Lean on your team.

You don’t have to have all the answers. Step back and give your colleagues a chance to shine. Just make sure you’ve discussed how to best support each other.

When you leverage co-workers in a meeting, you simultaneously build your own credibility. They can set you up for success by ensuring you’re recognized for sharing noteworthy ideas. Moreover, they can refer back to something you shared, if someone tries to take credit for your idea, for example. Your colleagues can serve as evangelists on your behalf by reinforcing your strengths, and you can do the same for them.

Once during a group discussion, one of my peers had more direct experience with the topic than I did. So I put the ball in his court by asking, “Didn’t you deal with a similar issue recently? How did you address it?” In doing this, I demonstrated leadership and collaboration, as well as a commitment to bringing value to the conversation by involving an expert.

3. Put people at ease.

Affability is easy to forget if you’re nervous and navigating a tough conversation, but it can enhance your chances of success. Look into the eyes of the people you’re talking to, smile and laugh at their jokes and try to make them laugh. Humor releases tension by creating a sense of levity, which can offset stress and negative feelings.

In a study conducted by the Bell Leadership Institute, “sense of humor” and “work ethic” were mentioned twice as much by employees who were asked to describe strengths and weaknesses of their company leaders.

“Humor is a vital tool of leadership,” institute founder and CEO Dr. Gerald Bell says. “People are used to associating laughter with the best medicine, but they are often surprised that ‘sense of humor’ is the phrase most frequently associated with the best in leaders.”

Bell noted that a leader who possesses a strong work ethic and a sense of humor might have an edge over others. Use this to your advantage in a social setting or meeting: Making people laugh creates a great deal of power, reducing the chances of being put on the spot. And if you are, humor can make the situation less uncomfortable.

On-the-spot moments are unavoidable, but they don’t have to be detrimental. Buy time if you need to, rely on your colleagues for backup and make participants feel comfortable. Soon you’ll be well on your way to expert universal adapter status.

Related: 10 Ways to Be a Better Communicator

Kelli Richards

A highly sought-after consultant, super connector, trusted adviser, celebrity wrangler and thought leader, Kelli Richards is the CEO of The All Access Group. She facilitates strategic business opportunities in digital distribution among innovative technology companies, talent and media companies, and brands to foster new revenue streams and deliver compelling consumer experiences. As a trusted adviser, she transforms the quality of people’s lives. Kelli is also the author of a best-selling e-book, The Magic and Moxie of Apple: An Insider’s View