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What to Do When the Unexpected Happens in a Business Meeting

Sometimes you have to learn to dance with the curveballs.

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How do you react when something unexpected happens?

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that literally caught you off-guard? You know, a totally unexpected, out-of-the-blue, split-second interruption where you had no choice but to trust your body to respond in the best way?

Back in the '80s, I was driving back to my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin (hook ‘em Horns!) from Texas A&M (boo, Aggies!) where I had been visiting a friend for a fun night of college debauchery. As I was rambling down Highway 290 on a misty morning at 70 miles per hour, a rare, unbelievable thing happened: All four lug nuts on the rear left wheel came off at the same time. The entire wheel detached from the car and raced past me at 70-plus miles per hour as my car abruptly skidded onto the naked axel.

Related: 4 Lessons From the Worst Business Meeting Ever

My life flashed before my eyes.

There was no time to think.

There was no time to plan.

There was no time to pray.

Sparks were visible everywhere and the car was shaking at the violent disruption. I went onto auto-pilot, and in some miraculous way, my body knew how to slow the car in a way that didn’t cause the car to flip, roll or burst out in flames.

I watched the wheel rolling at high speed down the center of the (thankfully) almost empty highway. Although my whole body was shaking the entire time, I had to focus. I was now late for an exam and needed to keep moving. I was racing a ticking clock, or was that my heartbeat?

What happened on that highway is no different than what can happen in a pitch meeting, or any meeting for that matter. You walk in with preconceived plans and goals and dreams, the process begins and things may seem like they’re going well — Until someone throws you a curve ball out of left field. And it’s a doozy. You’ve never had a comment like that thrown at you, and you just watched as your entire plan went up in smoke in a matter of seconds, just like my car journey that day. Now your heart is racing too.

It’s important to know you can trust your body and your instincts to take over — to stop yourself from falling apart, or worse, being nasty to the person who just de-railed you. Because, believe me, your initial reaction will be to say some unpleasant things. A great trick actors use to steady themselves when a line is flubbed is to plant their hands on a table, chair or physical object. That simple move can jar you back into sanity and the present moment.

It’s not easy, but it’s life. Most importantly, it’s your life!

Unexpected stuff happens in this crazy world, and you need to be prepared. Life would be grand if being prepared in business meant only having answers to all the potential questions. But that’s not enough anymore. The times have changed, and meetings are held from home with disruptions and interruptions, not to mention screaming kids in the next room or that car alarm down the block. It affects moods, behaviors and attitudes. Those, in turn, can trigger a comment or criticism that catches you off guard or strikes you the wrong way.

The only way to be prepared is to get your instincts into shape before you walk into meetings or pop on to your Zoom moment. Exercise those instincts. Work them. Trust them. That’s how you find success when you’re out pitching your idea or project.

You need to focus on mindfulness, patience, and the ability to find clues from the other people in your meetings before that unexpected dagger is thrown your way. Pay close attention to what you see. Listen closely to what’s said in between the words. When a player hits foul ball after foul ball, they are building their ability to read the pitcher. After a series of fouls, the batter is destined to finally eye the curve of the pitch correctly and connect for a smashing hit.  Read your “meeting pitcher” and keep swinging until you hit the sweet spot. Toss out a few balls yourself to see how people react and use that to guide you as continue presenting. It will help you be better prepared if an unexpected interruption occurs and can make a huge difference in the outcome of your meetings.

Related: Running Out of Things to Say On Zoom? This Communication Expert Wants to Help.

Oh, and what happened to that wheel on my car? After rolling 50 yards down the road, its trajectory took a skip and a hop to the right, passing in front of my lane. That hop turned into a full-out vault as the darn tire jumped a fence and landed in the middle of a herd of seemingly sleeping cattle.

I was somehow able to bring the car to a stop on the side of the road. The driver of a white van saw it all and was kind enough to come to my rescue by helping put on my spare (I had a spare?). There was no way I could get that tire back with Larry the Longhorn pointing his sharp horns in my direction (I guess some cows simply don’t sleep), so I had to continue on my journey. It was frightening, but I learned a great lesson about trusting my instincts. You should too.

It’s that important. Expect the curve.

Don’t sell yourself short.

Have a plan and be prepared for autopilot.

It can make or break your success.

Lauren Hirsch-Williams

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Marketing futurist/strategist helping entrepreneurs understand how to better read and communicate with people in business. Background includes corporate executive at PepsiCo running worldwide advertising, entrepreneur/founder of MovieHatch and Global Media Fusion, consultant and agency management.