If you’re already a worrier, you may have noticed that your general anxiety has shifted into overdrive since starting your first job. After all, you’re in unfamiliar territory and saddled with a learning curve. Between trying to assess the company’s culture, make a solid first impression and master the trick to unjamming the printer, you’re faced with a veritable cornucopia of items to stress over. And front and center is the fear of being put on the spot… and looking incompetent.
You can play the “I’m new here” card for only so long. Eventually you will be called upon by your boss or coworkers and expected to think on your feet. Being put on the spot at work can be nerve-wracking, but there are a few ways you can relax and sound like a reasonably eloquent professional (event when you’re not 100% sure of the right answer).
It is human nature to move away from uncomfortable situations as quickly as possible, but resist the urge to race through your response, as you will appear panicked and may end up saying something you don’t want to. Inhale and take a moment to think about the main point you want to get across. As you deliver your answer, make sure you’re continuing to breathe (we have a tendency to hold our breath when we’re nervous).
Assume best intentions
If you worry about speaking in front of your coworkers, being put on the spot may feel like a malicious and very personal attack. Remember that, in most instances, someone is asking you a question because they simply want to know the answer…and they think you have it! Try to see being called upon as an opportunity to help your team vs. a trap you need to escape ASAP. This shift will help you calm down and craft a more useful answer.
Ask a clarifying question
Answering a question with another question is fair as long as a) yours seems genuine and b) you don’t do it all the time. Respectfully asking someone to be more specific or provide an example can help bridge communication barriers, and it buys you a bit of time to think through your answer. Just be sure this tactic doesn’t become your default, as you’ll run the risk of sounding like a toddler who just learned the phrase “But, why?”
Delay your answer
No one has all the answers all the time. But, it’s not very often that you hear a leader say “I don’t know.” If you’re on the spot without a clue, you can save face by sounding proactive and solution-oriented. Try something like “I’ll know the answer to that question on Tuesday after I’ve spoken with the client during our weekly check-in.” A response like this shows that, even though you don’t have the answer at the moment, you understand that coming up with it is a priority. Plus, you already have a plan and a timeline in place. Just be sure that, once Tuesday rolls around, you follow through on your promises.
Take it easy on yourself
Thinking on your feet is like any other skill: some people are naturally adept, but most of us have to work at it. You may blush, fumble your words or say something weird the first couple times you’re put on the spot, but try not to let that discourage you. Observe how others handle being called upon and learn from their example. Don’t shy away from the spotlight; the only way to improve is through experience. Keep practicing and you’ll start to see being asked for input more as an opportunity to shine rather than a source of anxiety.
How do you deal with being put on the spot?
Jenessa Connor is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and young adult author. If you don’t find her in front of her computer, check the local movie theaters and restaurants, Prospect Park or the gym at CrossFit 718.