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Article by Kelli Richards

No one likes being put on the spot, but the experience does teach you to anticipate the unexpected. That’s a lesson forever useful in life and in business.

While technological advances in communication have diminished the frequency of in-person interactions, face-to-face exchanges are still among the most preferred forms of business communication, according to marketing strategy firm Ballantine. In one survey conducted by Verizon, 87 percent of respondents said in-person meetings were more creative and productive than virtual meetings.

But what happens when face-to-face chats go awry – when the conversation pivots in an unforeseen direction and you are suddenly asked to perform on the fly? Adapt or die, as they say. Or perhaps less dramatically, 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 created an unexpected dynamic. The next curveball came when I realized I was essentially auditioning to secure the opportunity. They asked me to present my business approach on the spot, but 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 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.

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.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Some Time

LookWhen you’re caught off-guard in a meeting, being fast on your feet is obviously ideal. But if you find yourself panicking, it’s best to 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.

Another way to buy time is repeating the question. The person to whom you’re speaking will see it as engagement on your part rather than a stalling technique. You can also ask about desired outcomes and expectations before answering the question. These simple tactics can turn a stressful scenario into a collaborative problem-solving session. You and your conversation partner might have been on different pages before, but now you’ll 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 beforehand.

When you leverage coworkers in a meeting, you build your own credibility while giving them a chance to shine. Your colleagues 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 else 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 him, “Didn’t you deal with a similar issue recently? How did you address it?” By doing this, I demonstrated leadership, collaboration, and a commitment to bringing value to the conversation by involving an expert.

3. Put People at Ease

It’s easy to forget to be affable when you’re nervous and navigating a tough conversation, but being friendly and welcoming 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 as well. 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, employees were asked to describe the strengths of their company leaders. They mentioned “sense of humor” and “work ethic” twice as much as any other phrases, suggesting these traits are critical for leadership success.

Smile“Humor is a vital tool of leadership,” institute founder and CEO Dr. Gerald Bell said in a press release about the study. “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 leaders who don’t. 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 put on the spot, 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. Do these things and you’ll be well on your way to expert universal adapter status.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

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 eBook, The Magic and Moxie of Apple: An Insider’s View.



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