What to do when you’re put on the spot!

Those 'Rabbit in the headlights' moments

Those Rabbit in the Headlights moments - when you're put on the spot

What to do when you’re ‘put on the spot’

The ‘Rabbit in the Headlights’ moments

Most of us have been there from time to time.  Some of us find ourselves there all-too-frequently.

You’re put on the spot - you’re suddenly challenged. Or accused. Or questioned. Or required to explain yourself.

Now you’re in the spotlight - feeling like a rabbit in the headlights.

Many of us freeze! We emotionally tense up. The mind goes blank. And we’re stuck for words.  And we look, act, and feel like, well, a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car!

Those ‘Rabbit in the Headlight’ moments

These are moments such as when

  • An authority figure accuses you of something
  • Your manager puts you on the spot with a question about your performance
  • Out of the blue, a colleague or friend says ‘that’s just rubbish’
  • Someone interrupts and disagrees with you during your important presentation
  • You’re aggressively challenged or accused during a workplace meeting.

And it doesn’t have to be critical or important situation – it can be as innocuous as a salesperson requiring you to justify why you don’t sign up right now!  Or a friend asking why you don’t want to come to their social event.

The spotlight is on you

What’s common to these situations? You are put on the spot - temporarily shocked. And this is a key element in the pattern - the unexpected, the surprise or shock.

How your challenger behaves it is often more significant than what they say. It can be their facial expression or body stance. Or the sound of their voice – loudness, coldness or abruptness.

This sudden change of events takes us unawares. Our hot button is pressed. Our mood changes instantly – blank mind, momentary trepidation, almost panic. We freeze.

We now act with all the resourcefulness of a little child being accused by a parent, teacher or other authority figure!

What’s happening?

So what’s going on?  How come you suddenly go from being a mature and rational and clear-thinking adult to being blank-minded and incoherent and almost panicky?

It’s because they have activated an old ‘anchor’ – one that was probably established years or decades ago.

An ‘anchor’ is an NLP term for a stimulus-response habit or pattern where something causes your mood to instantly change. Positive anchors cause our mood to change… well, positively. And negative anchors instantly cause un-helpful feelings such as the freeze feeling.

We ‘pick up’ these Anchor patterns along our way through life. Many of the negative ones were established, laid down, when we were very young. Yet they can last for years or decades.

‘I feel so silly!’

Anchors operate outside of conscious awareness. And, importantly, they operate so quickly that they bypass clear thinking.

In those ‘rabbit in headlights’ moments your mood changes too quickly for conscious, rational thought to kick in and prevent it happening.

That’s why you afterwards feel so silly. Or angry with yourself. Or angry at the other person.

  • Why did I fall for it?
  • Why did I let myself down?
  • Why can’t I stand up to these people?
  • Why do I let them get to me?
  • Why is it that things like this always undermine my confidence?

Yes, it’s very annoying. That’s bad enough.

But not knowing what’s going on, or what to do about it, makes things worse and can undermine self-esteem.

What to do about it?


Starting from today, recognise that the ‘freeze reaction’ is simply an old mind-body habit or programme – a Negative Anchor that you’ve picked-up years ago. And one that you are now going to weaken and replace.

Remind yourself that Negative Anchors do not respond to positive, rational, sensible thinking. They happen too quickly and, because of long practise, are too wired-in.

And remind yourself, too, that having a Negative Anchor does not reflect on your self-esteem – and that you are now going to practise the following technique skill for dealing with it.


Use this technique for a few weeks until it becomes wired-in, natural, automatic.

1. No outward reaction

At first, this may be the toughest part. That’s why frequent practise is important.

Make your mantra: ‘The first reaction is no reaction’.  And the moment you recognise you’re in a Freeze Situation… stop and become impassive, at least outwardly. Show no emotion.

At the same time momentarily look at something, anything, other than your Challenger. Look away as if you are considering what they’ve said – just for a couple of seconds.

This is to break the spell. It’s to detach yourself emotionally from your challenger.

2. Ask for clarifying information

Now ask them what they want from you. Or what they want you to so. Or simply ask for more information about their views.

Note: It is really important that you do this with a calm, measured, and neutral tonality.

By the way, it’s unimportant what reply you get. The aim of the question is to put the focus on them, rather than on you.

And to give yourself thinking time!

And to put a buffer between their challenge and your response to it.

3. Affirm that you will not play their game

Use this ‘thinking time’ to remind yourself that things have changed: you’re no longer prepared to be a rabbit in the headlights.

How to practise this?

These three steps occur almost simultaneously – in a smooth sequence.

Your aim is to interrupt the old anchor – the old stimulus-response pattern.

At first these steps may only weaken the gut response.

That’s fine – even a slight weakening is a change. You’re changing things already. You’re taking control of your reaction. With practise this sequence can become your new ‘natural’ way of dealing with this type of challenge.

Finally, you don’t have to wait for strong freeze moments to occur so you can practise. Practise the 3-step process on everyday situations like being asked a question or asked to do something. Your aim here is to replace the habit of instantly responding with a more thoughtful and considered response.

Is there a quicker way?

Yes, you can use an NLP technique such as the Swish Pattern  or, what we in Pegasus NLP call, The Panel of Experts (known in traditional NLP as the “New Behaviour Generator”).

Both of these are included in our NLP Core Skills course.

But if can’t attend a course use the above 3-step technique.

It’s not as instant as using one of the NLP techniques but, with determined practice, it works excellently.

I know, I used it for years before I came across NLP.

And I have no idea whether I learned it or compiled it from other techniques that I came across.  But I know it works.


The Pegasus NLP Newsletter

This article originally appeared in The Pegasus NLP Newsletter - which has been published continuously since January 2001.

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