Out of nowhere, you find yourself face to face with an unexpected encounter. Could be your partner. Could be your kid. If we’re talking about your enterprise, it could be a potential investor or customer.
“Oh, hey,” they say. “I’m glad I ran into you. Need to ask a question.”
You did not expect this meeting. You did not know you would get called on for an answer in the hallway. Honestly, you waited to use the restroom for the entire forty minutes of the conference call you just finished, and that dominates your thinking right this moment.
You hope the question calls for an easy answer. The person you ran into receives the response quickly. You get on about your day.
Sometimes the question requires effort. Perhaps you ran into a manager who shares an urgent problem with you. The potential investor asks about your numbers. A business partner feels uncomfortable about the next move you planned.
Whatever the question, you seize the opportunity, right? Leadership means action in the presence of the unexpected. You prepared for this even though you did not know it was coming. You have the skills. You think on your feet like you were born to do it.
The secret to thinking on your feet lies in what you did before the surprise moment happened. Even professional improvisers in performance only seem to pull everything they do out of thin air. They prepare ahead of time. Within the moment, they act decisively. You can master this, too. Here’s how.
Focus on your goals each morning. Doing this helps prepare you for the unexpected. You do not need to take much time. Get to the office a few minutes earlier than you usually would. Find a comfortable position in your office. Sit at your desk, or stand, or even amble through your office. Out loud and firmly, remind yourself of your mission. Who are you? What do you do? Why are you doing it? Allowing yourself time to settle into your role works wonders on your readiness for the unexpected.
When you encounter them, take careful note of any questions and concerns others bring up. Write them down. Soon enough, you will have a personal FAQ, your list of the “frequently asked questions” in your professional life. As you develop this list, develop answers. Rehearse the answers out loud. You might close the door so that nobody hears you talking to yourself. (“Um, Pam, is Michael talking to himself again?”) Preparing for these questions keeps them from surprising you again.
On a darker note, Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, often refers to a stoic concept called “premeditatio malorum.” It translates to “the premeditation of evils.” Ancient stoic teachers taught that the ideal situation, what we want to see happen, requires no preparation. The possible misfortune we could experience, on the other hand, requires our readiness.
Preparing for the unexpected involves our imagination. We do not need to run wild with thoughts of doom. However, what would we do if that shipment turned out to be late? What would we do if a storm knocked out the power in our offices at a crucial moment? How would we respond to complaints of various kinds from customers or team members? Again, this does not need to take much time. Being ready to think on your feet can get easier if brainstorming hypothetical “what if” situations become part of your routine.
In The Moment
The moment arrives. Almost caught off guard, you recall your preparation. You turn into the challenge, ready for action.
The surprise arrives. You act decisively. Make deliberate choices.
Our fight-or-flight instincts tend to take over when we face the unexpected. We react to either fight or flight by holding our breath. Take a moment for a deep breath. It does not need to be noticeable. It does need to be a breath. From this alone, you will feel yourself relaxing into readiness.
#2 Take Your Time
Rushing hurts your chances of quality decision-making. Take your time. The thoughtful pause shows intelligence. Pausing too long indicates something else, so move into your response as quickly as you can. Do pause, however. Give your mighty, creative brain time to work.
#3 Be Honest
You may need more time. Say so. “I don’t have that information right here with me, but I can find it when I get back to my desk.” Saying this communicates that while you do not have every detail handy, you know where to find the information.
Perhaps you need the question repeated. The person you ran into asked unclear questions or presented confusing descriptions of a problem. Request clarification.
Sometimes we think honesty will reveal some degree of incompetence on our part. Imposter syndrome, anyone? You have the power, because you prepare each day for leadership, to be honest. Others will see your honesty and respect it. Be honest.
Finally, if you want to master thinking on your feet, take one of two paths. Enroll in an improv class with your local improv group. Or hire them to run one of their corporate workshops with you and your team. Most professional improvisation troops keep busy training business leaders in the skills they need to think on their feet successfully.
When you take the time to prepare for the unexpected, you can land on your feet no matter what happens. You may even gain a reputation for exceptional leadership.