Dealing with the Unpleasant and Unexpected

What to Do When Your Good Day Falls Apart

Been to the ER recently? I have. After presenting to a crowd of human resource professionals and seeing long-time friends at one of my favorite conventions, I left to meet with a potential client. On the way to the parking garage, I stepped onto the handicap ramp to cross the street. The ramp was painted red and the drizzling rain made it slick. Unfortunately, I broke my wrist as I tried to break my fall.

As you can imagine, I went through a ton of questions from “What just happened?” to “Now, what do I do?” Surprisingly, my answers came with some unexpected help. A kind conference attendee Michelle Degnan stayed with me until I could get off the pavement. Unbelievably, the police were pulling up to the curb as I went down. They helped me back to the convention center and later with my car. EMTs in the conference center put my arm in a splint. The Colony ER was able to see me immediately and later made sure I could see a good surgeon.

Thankfully – my left wrist is broken not my right – I’m right-handed. My sister has a healthcare background and provided a heavy dose of help and humor. All of my clients were understanding, and several friends checked in to make me laugh as I heal.

Have you had anything unforeseen happen recently? What do you do when your plans are changed without your input? How do you deal with disruption in your personal or professional life? What do you do to address bad situations that you didn’t create and couldn’t prevent?

What To Do When You Are Unpleasantly Surprised

Life and work are full of surprises, and not all are pleasant. What happens when you discover all of your best-laid plans won’t work? How do you refocus when you encounter unanticipated opposition? When you find you are unprepared, or everything you prepared isn’t working, what do you do?

How to Take Control in Critical Situations

Take control of critical or highly stressful situations through questions. Police, medical professionals, and firefighters ask questions: “Are you hurt?” “Did you see what happened?” “Are there others in the building?” “What can you tell me?” When you are communicating with someone facing a stressful situation, ask questions to provide you the information you need. Answering questions helps people think and focus their communication.

When the negative news involves your employment, it can feel like a personal attack. Have you ever tried to remain positive when the conversation involves discipline, poor performance, layoffs, or termination? Consider these situations.

  • You arrive to discuss one matter with your boss and suddenly face an entirely different situation which negatively impacts your employment.
  • Your client surprises you with bad news like dissatisfaction with your delivery schedule or company budget cuts that will affect you.
  • Your team member makes statements in a meeting that are different from what you discussed and makes you appear uninformed.
  • Your time to make a presentation is dramatically shortened.
  • People ask questions you aren’t prepared to answer.
  • Your client is insulted, and there is a chill in the room that you can’t explain.
  • You receive a call telling you that your services are no longer required.

How do you stay calm under pressure?

Use the ASK Strategy

When you are in a stressful situation, use the ASK Strategy. Emotions or reactions can sabotage you and keep you from thinking clearly and objectively. Instead of allowing emotions to control you, use them as a signal to pay attention and to focus on what questions to ask next.

A: Aware
S: Seek clarity
K: Know your next best step or request


Be aware of what is happening. Start asking yourself questions. What can you determine by someone else’s demeanor, words, voice tone, and posture? What about you? What are you aware of right now at this moment in time?

For instance, if you receive a last minute change before you make a presentation, what are you noticing? Pay attention to your heart rate, your thoughts, your breathing, and how your body is reacting. Are you breathing too shallowly or quickly? If so, attempt to slow your breath down by counting as you inhale and then as you exhale. Are your eyes tearing up or unable to focus? If all else fails, be aware of your surroundings. For instance, pay attention to the fabric of your chair, the color of the walls or the flooring.

Seek Clarification

Seek insight or understanding. Are you missing context or are you unsure of the discussion? Seek clarity by asking others “what” and “how” questions.

If your boss gives you unfavorable feedback on your performance, ask questions and repeat the exact words you hear without emotion. Definitions and understanding of words are different. For further clarity, ask for examples: “Could you give me an example of that behavior?” or “Could you describe what you mean when you say __?”

Maintain eye contact but take notes if possible. Note taking helps you stay logical, objective and allows you to maintain calm during the moment. If questioned about what you are doing, say, “Your comments are important to me. I want to make sure I get them down correctly before responding.”


With the situation at hand, you should now know what to do next. Remember, you don’t have to have all the details filled in, just know what is next. If you don’t know what you should do next, then ask more questions to help you gain clarity.

If your client tells you that you will no longer be servicing an account, know what request makes the most sense right now. Do you need to ask a question to clear up a misunderstanding? Should you ask to determine which options are available to you with the news you’ve just been given? Is your best request a break so you can investigate concerns and have a more informed response?

P.S. After surgery, my wrist is healing. And I was reminded that no matter what happens, ask for help. Where do you need help? Is negotiation a skill you need to improve before 2020? What does your team have broken that we can fix? Please let me know how I can help you. If you want to know more about leading powerfully and negotiating for what you really want, please ask!