How to Handle the Stress of an Unplanned Chat with Your Boss

How to Stop Stressing When Your Boss Arranges an Unplanned Meeting

There are three simple words that can strike fear into the heart of almost any professional: “Can we talk?”

To illustrate, let me share an example. When I host workshops, I often ask attendees to share the first thing that goes through their mind when they hear this phrase. Some common responses are:

“Uh oh, what did I do wrong?”

“I must have made a mistake.”

“This is it. I’m getting fired.”

An unexpected meeting can make even the most self-assured leader nervous, particularly when the request comes from your boss or higher-ups. You may fear the worst, worried you’ll be reprimanded or let go even if you’re a stellar performer.

If this downward mental spiral seems familiar to you, you are far from alone. After all, the human brain is naturally wired to expect the worst in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s a protective mechanism designed to keep you safe. This tendency is especially strong in those I identify as “sensitive strivers,” or those high-achievers who also identify as highly sensitive.

For them, the panic induced by a surprise meeting can be paralyzing. That’s because high sensitivity leads to a genetic trait difference that makes a person more responsive to their environment. The neural circuitry of these sensitive individuals makes them experts at anticipating and pausing before taking action. But when that’s not an option, such as in the case of an unexpected meeting, their innate emotionality and thoughtfulness can be hindrances.

While it’s impossible to completely predict and control your boss’s behavior (as much as you would like to), it is possible to quell the stress and anxiety that comes along with unanticipated requests. Here’s how to rightsize your reaction so you can calmly approach the situation and show up more confidently during the exchange.

Ground Yourself

Your body may go into an overwhelming fight-or-flight response at the sight of the meeting invitation hitting your calendar or a direct message from your boss popping up. This is called an “amygdala hijack,” and when it occurs, the fear centers of your brain take over. Stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline course through your veins, causing a chain reaction of symptoms like rapid heartbeat, tunnel vision, and sweating.

One simple way to get back in the driver’s seat is with a mindfulness technique called grounding. Grounding exercises impact nerves in your brain’s arousal center and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and recovery and is the opposite of a stress response. When your parasympathetic nervous system switches on, your heart rate slows and blood flows to your prefrontal cortex, improving your self-control and giving you greater command over your thoughts and actions.

There are a myriad of grounding exercises you can try, everything from progressive relaxation to visualization. One of my clients’ favorites is box breathing, a controlled breathing technique used by the Navy SEALS.

Expand Your Mind

After you’ve calmed your physiology, it’s time to focus on your psychology. That’s because your panicked reaction is made worse by your automatic negative thoughts about the meeting.

Specifically, you may fall into certain cognitive distortions, or unhelpful, erroneous thinking patterns such as catastrophizing, where you imagine the worst possible outcome or jumping to conclusions where you make unwarranted judgments and convince yourself you know what other people are feeling and thinking without their saying so.

To counter cognitive distortions, try mental restructuring, which is a time-tested way to lower stress by changing the way you’re interpreting a situation. A reframing tool to use is one I call the “Rule of Five.” Simply look at your hand and brainstorm alternate explanations for why your boss may be calling this meeting. Count the possibilities off on each of your fingers.

For example, perhaps your boss has a question about a project you’re working on. Maybe they have to give you an important update that’s better delivered in real-time versus email. Or better yet, your boss could have positive feedback to share with you.

Reach Out Instead of Retreat

When you’re flustered, it’s easy to make up stories as to your boss’s intentions and to retreat into your own head. Make it a point to do the opposite. This principle of “opposite action” is a way to manage your emotions that comes from the field of dialectical behavior therapy. The theory posits that emotions like fear, panic, and stress come with certain urges that can be unproductive, and that if we act counter to the urge, we can move toward more constructive action.

Instead of recoiling, reach out to your boss to clarify the agenda for the meeting. Ask if there is something specific you can prepare or come ready to speak to. This can give you insight into your boss’s reasoning for calling the meeting and ease your concerns at the same time. If you do find out the meeting is to address a serious topic, you can be ready rather than caught off guard.

Prepare Your Talk Track

One of the best ways to deal with the anxiety of the unexpected is through rehearsal, so arrive at the meeting with some talking points prepared.

You should also anticipate what you’ll say if you don’t have an answer to your boss’s questions or concerns. Here’s a general framework to follow when you’re caught off guard, using the example of being confronted about a deliverable that’s off track:

  • Start by thanking them. Express gratitude for the feedback by saying, “thank you so much for sharing that with me. I appreciate your willingness to be candid with your concerns about the deliverable due dates.”
  • Validate their concerns. “I understand how important it is to have an understanding of the timeline. If I were in your shoes, I would want to know, too.”
  • Diplomatically defer if you don’t have a response. “I’m happy to share my initial thinking for where the team has gotten off track. But I’d like to reserve the right to investigate and come back to you with a more thorough response.”

Remember, regardless of what happens in the meeting, you will make it out the other side. And at the end of the day, it probably won’t be as stressful as you’re making it out to be.

© 2021 Melody Wilding // originally published on Fast Company

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers break free from imposter syndrome and overthinking so they can find the confidence to lead effectively.


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