Situations where you suddenly get back footed, maybe in a meeting or a conversation, where you were not expecting what came next can really throw us. And oftentimes we don’t respond in the best way. This happens to us all of the time, so being able to respond in a better way us crucial.
Let me give you an example! A while ago two social workers came in to see me and I had made some notes to take with me to talk to them about regarding a safeguarding concern that I had. However, when I sat down with them it became apparent that they did not really want to talk about that – in fact, what they wanted to talk to me about was the fact that my mum had moved into a care home and whether or not I had put her there against her will!
I very quickly realised that this was not a ‘let’s talk about the safeguarding issue that we need to talk about’, but in fact, it was an interrogation for me. Immediately in my brain I could hear myself thinking ‘why are they asking me all of these questions?’ and as I got myself worked up I started to lose information from my brain. I was still so stunned that we were having a meeting about something that I hadn’t been expecting to have a meeting about that I couldn’t find any examples when asked for them. And then, as soon as they’d left, I had a ton of examples!
What we need to be able to do in these situations is to keep calm and find ways to be able to come up with the right responses, even though we might have gone into fight-or-flight mode and started to feel as if we are under attack.
My first piece of advice is a really simple technique. Just start to tell a story around the thing that you are talking about. Maybe backtrack in history and start to give all of the information and fluff that you would ordinarily cut. What this does is it buys yourself some time; whilst you’re coming up with fluff and padding it out you can also be thinking in your head about other important things. You can decide on the most important things that you want to be able to say about the situation, and how you want to say it.
Another way that you can buy for time is to get halfway through your story and then pause and go ‘I’m so sorry I’ve completely forgotten what the question was’ which will then prompt them to repeat the question and gives you more time to think about what you’re saying, to catch your breath, centre yourself and calm yourself down. The chances are that whilst you’re trying to think and talk at the same time you might get yourself built up into more of a frenzy. If they’re talking and what they’re actually doing is repeating a question that you remember anyway, then you can take that opportunity to catch your breath and compose yourself, and then start to really think.
You should also remember to ask questions of them – this serves two purposes. Once again it gives you some thinking time whilst they reel off whatever the answer to your questions might be, but most importantly, from a psychological perspective, that gives both you and them the opportunity gain the sense of regaining control of this interaction. Typically we think that the person who is asking the questions is the one who is directing or leading the conversation. By you starting to ask some questions of your own it’s a bit like when your dog puts his paw on top of your hand – it says ‘I’m taking charge here’. It’s the same sort of thing that you are saying. Internally this gives yourself a bit of a confidence boost in knowing that you are taking control of this situation, and maybe you start to get them to back off a little bit because they realise that perhaps you’re going to be a bit more feisty to deal with than anticipated.
Don’t be afraid to backtrack: if you suddenly remember something then the last thing you want to have happen is to walk away from that exchange thinking ‘why didn’t I say, this why didn’t I say that?’ If you remember things here and there in the moment then say them! Pause the conversation and say ‘sorry but just actually I just remembered something. I’m really sorry to interrupt you but by the beginning you asked me about this and it’s just popped back into my brain. I didn’t add this in earlier and I just wanted to add this now because I think it might be important’. If the conversation is over and you have parted company then go back to the conversation if you can and if not the next best thing could be a follow up email or a letter that you send.
And always remember to accept and acknowledge your emotional response. If a comment catches you off guard and upsets you it is entirely okay to say ‘I’m very sorry if my voice shakes, I wasn’t expect the conversation to go this way and it has shaken me a little bit’. This pre-frames any reactions that you might have and allows the other person to know what they should expect moving forwards.
Obviously, with the best will in the world, even if we use all of these tips and tricks there will still be times where we are caught so off guard that our mind goes blank and we respond instinctively. It is bound to happen. But with these tips up your sleeve we can start to manage those situations a little bit better and, in time, it will become second nature.
By Gemma Bailey