5 Tips for Not Assuming the Worst When Your Boss Schedules an Unexpected Meeting

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Face time with your boss is often a great thing: It provides you the perfect opportunity to show off your knowledge and what you're contributing to your team. But if your manager ever unexpectedly asks you for a one on one meeting, and you have no idea why or what might be coming, you might well feel pretty uneasy about it. Even if it's plausible and probable that the purpose of the non-routine meeting is to go over details of a new project you’re working on, it’s easy to assume the worst, like that you’re about to be reprimanded or even fired.

If this mental downward spiral is familiar to you, at least you can rest easy knowing that it's totally normal. “In the absence of information, our minds make up the worst,” says counselor David Klow, LMFT, adding that it’s a protective mechanism to keep us prepared for any just-in-case situations. (It's also, for instance, why your mind goes straight to catastrophic thinking when you get an unexpected phone call from a loved one.)

“You don’t need to prepare for best-case scenarios,” says psychologist Simon Rego, PsyD. This gut reaction is likely an evolutionary holdout from times when there were more threats to safety on a daily basis. “It’s a higher-stakes game when you’re worried about encountering a saber-toothed tiger when you leave the cave,” he says. “Now, your brain just says there’s an important thing that’s about to happen, and it doesn’t differentiate a physical threat from a social threat, so it revs you up.”

“In the absence of information, our minds make up the worst.” —says counselor David Klow, LMFT

And the fact that this uncertainty involving a potential threat involves your career also plays a role in your heightened stress, says psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD. “We only worry about the things that matter, and few things matter more than our jobs and careers,” she says. “Our jobs are our livelihood, and your boss plays a critical role in judging your performance, thus determining your success or failure. Any unexpected communication with your boss can trigger anxiety and concern, even if there are no reasons to worry.”

Yet, short of becoming a mind reader, there’s little you can do to figure out your boss’ intentions before the actual meeting takes place. So, in the meantime, consider the following strategies from the pros to quell stress in the lead-up to your surprise one on one meeting.

5 tips to keep stress low leading up to your unplanned one on one meeting with a boss.

1. Consider the facts

“The trick to navigating anxiety effectively almost always boils down to considering what is reasonable and unreasonable anxiety,” Dr. Clark says. For example, if your boss has been sending barbed emails for weeks, the upcoming meeting might actually be for the purpose of discussing what’s going on. But if your boss has been giving you positive feedback lately, it’s unlikely you’re in any kind of trouble.

“While it is impossible to predict the future, you can usually determine the difference between what’s possible (I could be fired) and what’s probable (my boss may have a new opportunity for me or wants to follow up on a project),” Dr. Clark adds.

2. Think about why you just assumed the worst

While you’re thinking about the facts around this meeting, take a moment to consider what evidence you actually have to support your fears. If there’s little to none, you should allow yourself to think that this could actually be a positive meeting, Dr. Rego says.

3. Remember the last time this happened

Try and remember another time when you imagined the worst and things ended up better than you thought they would. Giving yourself time to “slow down, self-soothe, and stay in the moment” can help, Dr. Rego says.

4. Be prepared, but not panicked

Even if you know you haven't been on your A-game at work lately, sitting around and panicking until your meeting won't help you. Instead, Dr. Clark recommends taking control and doing everything in your power to solve the problem in advance. For example, if you’ve been chronically late to work, be prepared to explain to your boss that you’re planning to leave your house 30 minutes earlier from now on. “Make a few contingency plans and rehearse a few talking points,” Dr. Clark says. “Preparing for various scenarios is a constructive way to manage the anxiety of waiting and also helps give your anxiety the outlet it needs.

5. Remember that you’re really just spitballing ideas

Ultimately, these are all predictions. No matter what you, your co-worker, or your best friend thinks, you’re all making guesses about what will happen during your meeting. “When you remember that, you can often settle down and feel less anxious,” Dr. Rego says.

Odds are, the meeting will be fine and you’ll leave unscathed, albeit a little mentally exhausted. And if this is the case, you'll hopefully be better equipped to squash your anxiety around this kind of situation in the future. But if this anxiety continues being an issue for you, Dr. Rego suggests contacting a mental-health professional who can talk through your experience with you and teach you coping skills necessary for cultivating peace of mind in the face of potentially stressful situations.

Want more intel relating to workplace wellness? Here's how to navigating letting your boss in on your mental-health issue (or not). And here's how employers can create a burnout-free workplace.

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