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When I’m Called Upon In a Meeting Unexpectedly

| July 24, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… How Do I Respond?


Recently, I came across a short essay by one of my favorite leadership writers, Paul Axtell.  Axtell is an author of several books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations,1 and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review blogs. The piece that caught my attention is “How to Respond When You’re Put on the Spot in a Meeting.”2

No one of us has not experienced being called upon unexpectedly in a meeting. It may occur when we are fully engaged in the meeting’s presentation and conversation, or it just might be we are caught up in writing a note to our self (or someone else) about something that was just said (or not), or responding to the txt that just appeared on our smartphone (carefully held beneath the table), or when our mind has wandered off to the next event on our calendar. And, as you are called upon, you may even question what gives you the right to sit at this table, as the imposter syndrome3 rears its ugly head.
Before focusing on the major subject here, I want to say a few words about the imposter syndrome. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, coined this term in 1978 for what they described as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They noted that while such individuals “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
Once we know what to call this fear, it is very helpful to learn of others who have the fear. One such person was Maya Angelou, noted American author and poet. She is known to have said that “I have written 11 books, and each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out’.” Think about this. This widely recognized talented person always questioned her success. Carl Richards3 notes that many others including American Presidents feel the way we feel.
Richards believes that we feel this way because the very act of being good at something can sometimes lead the person who is very good to discount her or his value. So, how do you deal with this? Referencing clinical psychologist and author Tara Brach,4 Richards suggests that we have to invite the feeling in and continually remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means.
Now, let’s get back to our subject: How do we respond when we are unexpectedly called upon in meetings?
Actually, we begin before the meeting. Unless the meeting is totally unexpected – as in your manager stops you in the corridor and asks you a question – the meeting organizer should have provided an agenda and any necessary background materials in advance of the meeting. If you do not have the agenda 24 hours before a meeting that is scheduled on your calendar, I think that it is appropriate to ask the meeting’s planner/convener when the agenda will be available. While distributing the agenda may not be the cultural norm in every organization, there is lots of research that has found that meetings with clear agendas produce more and better results, and in less time.
Having the agenda, and the associated background material, gives you the opportunity to prepare for the meeting. This preparation includes working through the agenda item by item, reviewing any material that is provided for that discussion, and carefully listing any questions you have or points you want to make on an agenda item. You need to do this before the meeting to give you time for a careful review as well as time to do any additional research you may need to do on a particular topic. During the discussion, you’ll want to take brief notes as the conversation progresses so long as that does not interfere with your listening.
Axtell, in his essay, provides a number of additional suggestions that I want to note here:
Trust yourself – Don’t dismiss your ideas as irrelevant or too ordinary. He argues that your ideas, arguments, questions, etc. are unique to you. And, he reminds us that the only “you” – your ideas, questions, arguments, views, background, experience, concerns etc. – in the meeting is you. If you value your own thinking, others will respect it as well.
Decline if you have nothing of value to add – If you have nothing meaningful to add to the conversation, it’s OK to pass so long as you do so in a meaningful way.  For example, by saying “Thanks for asking. I think others have already made the points I wanted to be sure are considered.”  Saying this, instead of something like “I’m OK,” conveys that you have considered what was said carefully.
Start slowly and set up your comments – Pause, take a deep breath, and speak slowly and clearly. If you’ve been surprised by being asked to comment, you may need to settle down. Otherwise you may speak too fast and stumble over your words. So, you might begin by letting the meeting attendees know what’s coming: “I have three comments I want make to provide some additional background on the discussion.” Setups such as this help you organize your thoughts and reduce the chance that you will ramble.
When helpful, give yourself permission to think out loud – Since you did not necessarily expect to be called upon, you likely will not have a polished response. “Several of you have raised points that I want to tie to a concern I have, that I believe is important to the decision we are being asked to make. Will you bear with me for a few moments as I set the major issue up?”
Finally, Axtell suggests that there are a number of set responses that we should have ready if the situation calls for one of them:

  • Please say a bit more about what you are asking me?
  • I don’t have that information with me. Would it be OK if I get it to later today (perhaps by a specific time)?
  • Here’s what I take away from the conversation we’ve just had.
  • I think that I understand what you’ve proposed. However, I see it differently? May I share my thoughts with you?
  • While I may have preferred a different approach, I will support what we’ve agreed to.
  • Does this answer your question? (It’s almost always important to gain some assurance that the issue has been satisfactorily addressed.)

Other leadership coaches have made additional recommendations in The Muse:5

  • Focus on what’s important by asking yourself questions such as these: What do I not understand that could be clarified?, What insight/perspective do I have that can be shared?, What question can I ask to advance the discussion?
  • Use your knowledge to generate questions that demonstrate your involvement in the discussion.
  • Avoid going on the defense.  When caught off guard, it can be easy to become defensive.  Instead of responding with “No, but …” try a “Yes, and …” strategy to move the discussion forward.  The change in language can inspire creative problem solving with a possibility of moving the issue forward.

If you are particularly anxious when you are called upon in meetings, you may want to take time to practice these possible actions and set responses so that they are always fresh in your mind.
Being called upon in a meeting is rarely a life or death moment (though it may feel like one at the time). Nevertheless, being prepared as you go into a meeting including having worked through how each topic appears from your unique perspective needs to be a mandatory part of your schedule for every meeting on your calendar.
If you’re not doing this now, take the time to give this approach a try for a meeting later this week. And, if you are the convener of meetings, including one-on-ones, do provide the meeting attendees an agenda and the necessary background materials at least a full day before the meeting. Putting this together before the meeting sharpens your thinking about the meeting and what you want to achieve by holding it. I think you may be surprised that doing this will significantly improve your meetings and what they accomplish.
Make it a wonderful week for yourself and your team.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1.  Paul Axtell, Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable ConversationsJackson Creek Press, 2015.
  2. Paul Axtell, How to Respond When You’re Put on the Spot in a Meeting, Harvard Business Review, April 2019.
  3. Carl Richards, Learning to Deal With the Imposter Syndrome, New York Times, October 2015.
  4. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Audio Book, 2004.
  5. The Muse, 9 Tips for Thinking on Your Feet When You’re Put on the Spot and Have to Sound Smart.  Retrieved July 20, 2018.