Working from home and embracing new technology can set up some embarrassing situations. From being interrupted on video conferences by family members to unknowingly enabling a cat filter, expect the unexpected. The best way to professionally handle awkward situations is to roll with them, says Peggy Caruso, author of Take the First Shot: Strategies to Fire You Up and Change Your Life.
Caruso recently encountered an awkward situation during a two-hour online book launch event. Twenty minutes in, her screen went blank. “I was used to live events and had learned everything I could learn to prepare,” she recalls. “The audience could see me, but I couldn’t see anything on the screen. I also had guests who were coming on. Rather than panic, I kept going.”
Tara Lilien, chief talent officer at Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm, also experienced an awkward situation. She was on a video call with 10 colleagues and staying on mute was not an option. “Others could pick up on any background noise in my house,” she says. “At one point, one of the participants typed a note in the chat that read ‘Whose kids are Mortal Kombat-ing in the background?'”
It was Lilien’s son, who was playing in the next room and being pretty vocal about it. “A moment like that pre-COVID would have caused me to go beet-red and apologize profusely for the incident,” she says. “I just fessed up and we all had a good laugh. This is our new normal.”
Chances are, you may have experienced a similar situation. Here are tips for handling it with grace:
When a situation turns negative, people tend to panic. The important thing is to stay calm. While you can’t prepare for every scenario, you can mentally prepare by learning deep breathing and mediation techniques that can help you control how your mind reacts, says Caruso.
“The body reacts to the way you’re thinking,” she says. “Calmness and positivity go hand in hand. It’s all how you look at it. You’ll always encounter setbacks. It only becomes a failure when you don’t get back up. Setbacks are stepping stones for success.”
Embrace the awkward
Maintaining professionalism shows you are in control and that you can handle stressful situations. Instead of ignoring it, own it or even embrace it. “During my event, I acknowledged that my screen went black,” says Caruso. “I asked the audience to bear with me. I said, ‘Sorry if I’m chopping my head off.'”
Whether it’s a kid, a pet or a loud construction worker outside, we all have distractions coming in and out of the screen during our meetings, adds Lilien. “Quickly acknowledge it, don’t dwell, and get back to business,” she says. “We’ve all become quite forgiving of this over the last year.”
Laugh it off
You also should look for humor in the situation. Try to laugh it off, says Caruso.
“Don’t be afraid to communicate how you’re feeling in the situation,” she says. “Admit you can’t believe this is happening. If you make it light-hearted, everyone will laugh with you and be on your side. But if you fall apart and let the situation overcome you, you will lose the connection with your audience.
If your problem is tech-related, such as Caruso’s book launch, remember that the IT team is on your side. Don’t cast blame. Instead, work together to solve the problem.
“Develop a rapport with the person on other side of the technology,” says Caruso. “Once you do that, things become less stressful. Situations come up. You know you’re working with someone who is just as human as you, and mistakes do happen.”
Have back up plan
If you’re running your own technology, put a Plan B in place for important meetings, suggests Lilien. “If you use a laptop for all your meetings, keep a phone nearby in case Wi-Fi drops,” she says. “Zoom and Teams both have apps that allow you to use both audio and video to conduct meetings from your phone if need be.”
Another option that is less techie but can prove useful if you are presenting something important is to have a hard copy of your slides,” says Lilien. “Dial back in via phone and use the printed version to guide you and you won’t miss a beat,” she says.
Seize the opportunity to advertise yourself
Often, the awkward situations that arise are out of your area of expertise. Caruso says this creates a good opportunity to advertise your company and skills.
“Turn it around and use it as a positive,” she says. “I’m an executive and personal development coach and not an IT pro. The situation can give you a chance to plug your area of expertise.”
Remember, there’s a solution to every problem, says Caruso. “Do the best you can do,” she says. “Demonstrate that mistakes are acceptable. This helps you connect to your audience to create more personal relationships in our tech world.”