I hate surprises.

Yes, there is such a thing as “pleasant surprises,” like discovering my kids cleaned their room without being told (that WOULD be a surprise!). But in general, I do NOT like surprises. And I don’t just mean the jump-out-of-a-box and startle you out of your skin kind (those can be pretty funny, especially when it’s happening to someone else), but any time I don’t know what to expect or things get changed at the last minute I get stressed out.

It would be so much easier for me if life just went according to plan all the time. Specifically, MY plan. That would be great.

But in real life we get hit with surprises all the time: You get an unexpected question that you have no good answer for. Someone makes an inappropriate remark you don’t know how to handle. You’re well-crafted plan gets thrown out by upper management at the last minute. You spill coffee down your shirt. Technology fails you. You lose the notes for your presentation…

That happened to me when I was about 17 years old. I’d gone to a church summer camp. One of the activities was “Speech Class.” At the end of the two-week camp, the staff chose me to deliver a farewell speech on the last night after the fancy dinner. I took my notes, but misplaced them en route and couldn’t find them anywhere. I had to wing it! Terrifying!

Life, as much as I wish it could be, is not a scripted event. When we’re surprised, it’s easy to shut down. Handling those awkward, unexpected hiccups and interruptions smoothly, though, makes your credibility soar through the roof. Nothing says, “I am a pro” like deftly navigating situations that make everyone else uncomfortable or anxious.

When things go wrong or you’re thrown for a loop, how do you deal? Here are two tips for handling surprises like a pro.


Don’t take it personally.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don’t make up a story about what someone else says or does. I have to remind myself that the person springing the last minute changes on me or asking that awkward question isn’t out to get me. 99% of the time they aren’t purposefully trying to make my life a miserable living hell, though it may feel like it.

This step is important. Taking it personally automatically throws you deeper into fight-or-flight, because it feels like a personal attack instead of just a situation to deal with. By not allowing yourself to get personally sucked in, you increase your sense of personal power and your ability to approach the situation rationally and creatively.

If you’re the one throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the works, however, this still applies. Let the other person have their emotional reaction and don’t take THAT personally either. You only have control over yourself. But you DO have control over yourself, so exercise it!



Of course. Then you can think.

When we’re surprised, the natural reaction is to gasp. You take a quick breath and hold it. Your brain then funnels its oxygen and energy to the instinctive part of the brain instead of to the rational part of the brain. This is GREAT when your “surprise” is a dangerous predator like a bear or a tiger and you need to rely on instincts and quick reflexes to survive. It’s not at all helpful when you’re trying to THINK rationally and creatively of a good answer or solution or follow-up question.

Let go of the fear and give yourself a moment to breathe. Even if you can’t come up with something spectacular to say, when you’re grounded and breathing everything that comes out of your mouth will sound more calm and credible.

Surprises are a natural part of life. No matter how big a control-freak planner you are, you will sometimes be caught off guard. Happily, no one expects you to control LIFE. Take responsibility for your reactions and your communication, and you’ll find your influence expands.


Change your communication, change your life.

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