What to say when you’re caught off guard

By now, you know the hardest part of any ambitious project isn’t the idea. It’s getting people on-board. And you can only get people on board if they BELIEVE in your ability. That’s why it’s important to make sure your perceived level of competence reflects your actual level of competence.

At some point, you might get blind-sided by a project detail you are not prepared to talk about. Moments like this can make you look bad and make others doubt you.

That’s why I’m a big fan of having go-to phrases you can use in 80% of situations when you’re surprised. The benefit is you won’t have to scramble in the moment. You can relax because you know what to say, which allows you to be more present. Plus, it's an elegant way to buy yourself time.

What to say and why it works

Here are scripts of what to say:

“I’m coming out of another meeting, so I'll need some time to context switch and make sure I give this the attention it deserves. Let’s set up a meeting for later this week so we can carve out time and go deep on this issue. How does that sound?”


“This sounds important and I want to make the best use of everyone’s time. Let’s set up a time later this week and go deep on this. I’ll present the updates at our next meeting.”

These scripts work because they accomplish three things:

  1. Make sure the person feels seen and heard: Acknowledge that the issue is important, so the other party feels seen and heard. You’re not hiding or squirming or making up excuses.

  2. Take responsibility and ownership: Spinning your wheels trying to think of an answer on the spot is not helpful for anyone. Instead of wasting the person’s time, you can prepare offline and get back to them. It shows you want to do your part to make sure the person gets what they need.

  3. Suggest a next step: It's harder to push back if you suggest a new alternative.

A response like this makes you appear reasonable and thoughtful--because you are BEING reasonable and thoughtful.

When you feel backed into a corner, get out of the corner 

It’s hard to come up with a smart response when your mind is racing and you’re trying to stay calm. Meanwhile, you’re judging yourself because you know if you had more time, you could come up with a great reply.

When someone comes at you, it’s natural to respond by simply answering their questions at face value. After all, you’re answering in good faith. But soon you realize this is a more emotionally-charged situation than you originally thought. The more you answer, the more questions they ask.

Why does this happen? Because you are playing different games. Person A is asking a bunch of aggressive questions because they are frustrated. Person B thinks, “If I just reply to the questions, Person A will feel satisfied.”

The dynamic is one of offense and defense. The other party is playing offense--coming at you with questions--and you’re playing defense by answering reactively. This puts you at a position of weakness.

More importantly, it means both parties are running on a hamster wheel: there’s lots of activity, but no forward progress.

Break the frame & reset the power dynamics

Ideally, both people should both come into the conversation as equals. How do you do this? By doing a reset.

Resetting the dynamics is a strategy you can use in your work and personal life. How do you know when you should do a reset? Whenever you feel like incremental gains aren’t enough, and when you get the sense that you and the other person are having two different conversations.

A reset disrupts the pattern you've fallen into during the conversation. It's a pause that addresses the underlying emotions and undertone of a conversation--without calling anyone out. It works because it's based on mutual respect and allows everyone to save face.

Doing a reset is a gentle, empathetic way to say, “Hey, I think we’re on a hamster wheel. Let’s get off this thing together, and find a way to move forward.”

You care a lot, you work hard, you’re taking on projects most people wouldn’t--so don’t let them throw you off your game. Stay calm, reset the frame, and offer an alternative suggestion of what to do.

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