How to Respond When You Suddenly Get Laid Off, Fired, or Promoted at Work Try this three-part structure: what, so what, what now.

By Jenna Gyimesi

Key Takeaways

  • Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and author.
  • He says to take a pause when you receive unexpected news to gather your thoughts and emotions.
  • Abrahams recommends responding in a what, so what, and what now structure.
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Matt Abrahams recommends taking a pause when receiving unexpected news.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Matt Abrahams, Stanford lecturer, communications consultant, author, and podcast host. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I specialize in helping people be comfortable and confident in their planned and spontaneous communication, and I'm a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where I teach strategic communication. Here's how I would recommend handling unexpected news at work, such as a promotion, a layoff, or firing.

The first challenge when you're caught off guard is that there's pressure to respond immediately — but you don't have to. Most people will regret the first thing that comes out of their mouths if they respond right away.

Step 1: Take a pause

The first thing I would do is take a beat. One way to do this is to say, "I need a moment to process this." Another way you can do it is by asking clarifying questions or paraphrasing to give you time to process what's happening.

If you need a big pause, then it's okay to excuse yourself from the situation. You could say, "Okay, thank you for telling me. Let's schedule a different time to talk or I'm going to go get some water."

Step 2: Check in with yourself

During your pause, ask yourself, "What does this mean, and how do I feel about it?" Many of us have an initial emotional reaction, but we may think about it and conclude it's not as bad as we thought.

Step 3: Structure your response

I love a three-part structure: what, so what, what now. The "what" could be I am happy about that, it upsets me… whatever. The "so what" is why it's important. And the what now are the next steps. If you train yourself when some of these surprising things happen to respond in that way, it allows you to more efficiently and quickly respond in a way that is coherent and logical.

Remember what's my response? Why is it important? What do I need next?

Example 1: You're promoted and you're surprised.

  • What: That's great. I'm really excited.

  • So what: I can implement all those plans that I've been talking to you about.

  • Now what: When does the promotion take place?

Example 2: Your organization is restructuring and your job is no longer needed.

  • What: Wow, that's a big surprise. I'm sorry to hear that.

  • So what: I guess I have to wrap up my project and transfer the information.

  • Now what: What would you like me to do next? And what's the

  • protocol?

Step 4: Make sure you're understood

Often in these situations, especially if it's bad news or constructive feedback, the person giving it is super stressed about saying it, and your response might fall on deaf ears or not be heard.

So I think the final step is to check in and say, do you understand? Do you see where I'm coming from? Do you have questions about my response? Just as a way of making sure what you said landed.

Step 5: Depending on the situation, write an email

If you get something positive, I might write an email and say something like, "Hey, thanks. That's great. I'm really excited." Even if it's a negative situation, I lean toward expressing gratitude. Write, "Thank you for delivering that news. I'm disappointed, but I appreciate the opportunity I've had here at the company." You don't want to burn bridges or storm away.

Try to read signs before you're caught off guard

I think that a lot of times when people are caught off guard, they sit back and say retrospectively that they could've seen it coming. When your boss's boss calls you into the office, you might take a beat and say, "Hmm, I wonder what that's about." You can't fully be prepared. But most of the time when I talk to people, they share with me that they knew something was unusual that they should've noticed.

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