3 Things to do When you are Surprised!


There is nothing more certain than change in life. Change can be planned and well known or it can be a complete surprise. How we react to the instant surprise is an important skill. I am more of a planner person than I like to admit and surprises can be the worst thing ever! I am a great improviser when push comes to shove, but I still like to have a plan. So I have learned some skills to help handle surprises.

I experienced a pretty amazing surprise at the IIBA® conference Building Business Capability last week. Jared Gorai and I had been planning a breakout session titled ‘The 7 habits of Highly Effective BAs’. Because Jared is in Calgary and I am in Iowa, we had worked on this presentation remotely for 9 months. When we arrived at the conference we got to work putting the pieces together in person. We were feeling confident that it would be great. We had been tweeting and sharing excitement on LinkedIn in addition to advertising with fun t-shirts the day before featuring the kool-aid we were encouraging people to drink with the 7 habits. The time of the presentation was drawing close. We had prepared the room, set handouts and kool-aid packets on every chair, prepped our kool aid glasses for a closing toast on the front table, had our microphones and presentation ready. The room was filling up, there were people sitting in the aisle and crammed in the room and lined up out in the hall way. We were excited so many people wanted to hear what we had to share. At this point, the conference organizer lets us know he could shut off the room or move us to the keynote room. This is the SURPRISE moment! You now need to present to a huge room with multiple hundreds of people. So how do you handle a surprise? I would suggest there are three steps to handle any surprise.

1. Pause, breathe and think
2. Turn your reaction into a response
3. Be happy

Step 1. Pause, breathe and think

The first step is so important. When something surprising happens, take a moment to pause, breathe and think. Even if this is a few seconds, taking a moment to stop, take a deep breath and think about what is happening allows you to notice what is going on. The power of deep breathing allows your body to relax and become aware of your surroundings. In the case of my ‘Keynote Surprise’ this was important. I was surrounded by a room full of people looking towards the front of the room ready for what Jared and I would be sharing. The room was so full, people were sitting in the aisles and in the front row. I was thinking about how I would walk and make sure not to step on someone. As I heard the news of a sudden change in logistics, I paused took a deep breath, thought about the implication and conferred with my co-presenter. We gave each other a high five and moved on to step 2.

Step 2. Turn your reaction into a response

With the ‘chill’ provided by step 1, an initial reaction is turned into a response. The initial reactions of fear, doubt, frustration, or ‘I can’t do this’ are dispelled as a deep breath and a ‘quick think’ turn that reaction into a response. A response has reason because you have taken a moment to think about this surprise. A reaction is based on emotion and lacks logic and reason. The response I formulated was “Yes, let’s move rooms.” I quickly responded rather than reacted. Instantly I am creating a plan on how the interactive presentation would be different given the logistical change in the room. The response was logical and devoid of a frightened or hysterical reaction. Afterwards discussions with friends included a theme of ‘I would have been terrified if that had been me’. I was nervous, I was unsure of exactly what has happened. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with what was happening I had the beginning of tears of happiness from this surprise.

Step 3. Be happy

Surprises have an element of happiness in them. Our reactions are a choice, our responses are our choice. We are in charge of both. Be happy with the surprise and find joy. I became happier as I stood on the stage before the presentation started and declared with outstretched arms and a smiling face ‘I feel like a rock star. Someone should tweet this!” I was thrilled to see that actually happened to capture this moment!

What a great experience to have this ‘Keynote Surprise’ and to be happy despite the adrenaline rush pushing me to react and not respond. Thankfully my co-presenter was able to move through these simple steps with me and express the same happiness.
When I am at work and there is a surprise to the scope, with a stakeholder, or a change request, I pause, breathe, and think. Then I formulate a response rather than a reaction and I choose to be happy. The simple act of smiling changes my ability to be happy no matter what the surprise it. ‘Don’t worry. Be Happy’ is wise advice!

Heather, A BA Without Borders

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