Stop Allowing Ambush Conversations

It happened again last week at a dinner event. I was at a table with business owners, executives and leaders. The conversation had been smooth enough. Most of it focusing on business getting ramped up again after the holidays. But then someone turned to me and said, “You’re a coach right?” I nodded. “What’s one piece of advice you think all leaders need to hear?” On cue every pair of eyes at the table turned to look at me like I was going to do a great party trick.

I have a couple of answers I usually give:

  • Be really good at understanding and communication expectations. After all, even Santa Claus gets a list. (That usually gets a few laughs and a conversation about broken expectations ensues.)


  • Did you know that you are more likely to be murdered by someone you know than by a stranger? Maybe that means we should all stop networking because we are more likely to be murdered if we know more people. (That is circular logic and not at all true. But it’s funny and often starts a conversation about networking.)

But I didn’t say either of those things last week. Instead I said, “All leaders need to stop allowing ambush conversations to suck their time.” The conversation that followed was very interesting as each leader weighed in and shared stories. I’d like you to be able to share in the learning too:

What is an ambush conversation? When someone sticks their head in your office and says “Hey got a minute?” Or stops you on your way to the bathroom to ask a “quick” question. Or grabs you in the parking lot to follow up on an email. Or texts you during dinner. If you are doing one thing and someone snags your brain to think about something else – you have been ambushed.

Why are ambush conversations a problem? There are two issues. One – You were just thinking about and doing something. Whatever it was has now been replaced by the ambush conversation topic. When you’re done talking about it you will have to spend several minutes figuring out where you were and what you were doing because your concentration has been broken. I estimate that every ambush conversation you allow costs you at least 15 minutes of productive time, maybe more depending on how long the person talks. Two – You are not prepared to have a conversation on the ambush topic. You are more likely to agree to something you shouldn’t or refuse a good idea because you brain switches into “defense” mode as you try to process what is happening. Good conversations can’t happen when you are in a defensive mindset.

How do you keep an ambush conversation from happening? The first step is to have a conversation with your team about ambush conversations, why they don’t work and to create the expectation of not using them. Once everyone understands the term people are less likely to start ambush conversations (because they are self-aware about them) and if someone does you can say “I’m not prepared to have an ambush conversation about that. Can you send me an email with the details? That way I can get you a well thought out answer.”

But the only way any work gets done around here is through ambush conversations. I have heard this from more than one of my Fortune 100 clients. It is interesting to me that there are so many corporate cultures where people spend hours and hours in meetings together but feel like they get their best work done catching someone running to use the bathroom between conference calls. Is that a culture you want to allow to grow? If not, what are you putting in place to create something different?

Recognizing when you are being ambushed takes time. Many of my clients have reported it is such a normal part of their day they don’t even realize it is happening until they think back and wonder why they didn’t get any work done. And if you are a helping type person (which most leaders are) it is hard to break the habit of dropping whatever you’re doing to help someone. Practice having the conversation with your coach or mentor. You don’t have to say no. You just have to be able to say not right now.  

I had a good laugh with my table-mates that night because we were having an ambush conversation about not having ambush conversations.

How much time do you think you burn everyday because someone “needs to talk to you for just a minute?” How much time is that in a week? A month? Is that the best use of your most precious commodity? Having an open-door policy is one thing. Allowing others to decide how your time is spent is another.

As always, I wish you the MOST from your potential!

Doc Robyn

PS - I believe the space between people, how we communicate, deal with disagreement and motivate ourselves and others, is where the fine line between success and failure is drawn. Want to learn more? Contact me to discuss becoming a client.

Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka “Doc Robyn”) is internationally known motivational speaker, executive coach and corporate trainer. As CEO of Champion Performance Development, she works with executives, professionals, athletes, and coaches to help them achieve excellence by sharing active leadership, powerful teamwork, conscious communication, Productive Conflict™ and professional disagreement skills. She is the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign and author of the books Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams and The Ultimate Guide to Handling Every Disagreement Every Time. To work with her, have her present to your team, request a custom workshop or invite her to speak at your event, please call 302-307-3091 or email her at to discuss her availability.

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