Thinking On Your Feet
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
I am a deep thinker. I consider this as a strength - people often reach out to me to get my opinion because I can typically highlight considerations that others may miss. However, an overused strength can become a weakness. As a result, I also developed certain quirks that didn’t help me at work. Specifically,
I *always* liked to think about things which means I am perceived as being overly quiet in meetings
In rapid fire situations, where I needed to “think on my feet”, my strength worked against the needs of the situation.
I wanted to be adaptive and flex my style, so I can be successful in these work situations while staying true to who I am as a person. A goal of my blog is to provide practical suggestions that you can start using immediately. Here is how you can adapt, successfully, to the demands of your workplace by starting with who you already are, while making longer term changes to grow skills in this area.
If you are a thinker, this should come easily to you. Anticipate common follow up questions and have ready, well considered responses for them. Now you can “spontaneously respond” in meetings because you anticipated them and have a well thought out response ready. Yes it takes extra prep time but you wouldn’t show up for a meeting unprepared anyway! This has been an effective technique for both speaking more and “thinking on my feet”
Regardless of how much you prepare in advance, there will always be events or questions that you had not anticipated or won’t have answers to. I conditioned my mind to consider this as a new skill I want to acquire versus a weakness or problem to overcome. I have a growth mindset and love learning new things. Versatility is important, and it instills confidence in your team and your management chain when you can adapt to any situation. Bluntly put, thinking on your feet is a foundational and must have skill to be successful anywhere. I framed this as problem solving but on steroids.
And it is not as daunting as it feels. Here are techniques to get genuinely better in how you respond to unplanned situations.
Ask questions first, instead of responding
A great way to respond is getting the speaker to speak more. Asking clarifying questions is often the right response. As a product manager, I am often asked to comment about missing features or a strategic direction. Using a curiosity mindset, you can ask clarifying questions to further understand the motivation. For example, the conversation could go something like this:
[Customer] Do you have feature X in your product? Or when can you deliver feature X?
[You] Can you tell me more about how you plan to use this feature? OR
[You] What are you trying to get done in your team or organization that depends on this feature?
[You] How are you overcoming this gap today and what is exacerbating the gap now?
By being curious and listening intently, you are not focused on what to say. Instead the questions come naturally because you are just having a conversation.
Identify safe situations. Then actually flex yourself and practice.
If this is a skill you truly want to acquire, then you have to be willing to start responding without a lot of advanced preparation. Start with meetings or questions with low consequences and work your way up to the more critical situations.
Analyze the consequences of responding right away. Not everything needs a well thought response. How do you decide? If you can provide a response that can easily be reversed later, then go ahead and provide an answer right away. If the decision cannot be reversed later, then take the time. Don’t succumb to the pressure of the moment. Instead, let the audience know that this is too important to make a snap decision on, but you promise to evaluate and come back with a response within a set timeframe.
Try improv exercises. We need to stop overthinking, recondition our brains and just practice to speak without advance notice. Improv exercises are great to simulate saying something when unprepared. For example, this talk has some great exercises, like play a game where you do these 2 things
Open the imaginary box. Thank the other person for the gift. Then the other person responds to whatever you were responding to.
Point to something and instantly call it anything but the right name.
Stop making it about yourself or if you will be judged. It is more important to show up and focus on the discussion at hand. By reframing to broader goals, I found it easier to lean in and participate without any advanced preparation. Agreement or approval from the audience is not the goal, participation is.
Refocus on what’s important. One way to contribute is by anchoring your responses to goals and key messages. This is a safe space to get to. For example, if interviewing with external analysts or the press, when asked about something that can be controversial, a safe response is to reframe the question and steer it back to your talking points, and reiterate key messages.
Set goals for yourself so you are making continuous improvement
For example, I set a goal to say something useful within the first 10 minutes. It was either a question (why, what, when, how, where) or used a “Yes and” technique, where I can add to the conversation by offering at least one additional suggestion of my own.
Secondly, I wanted to get a streak going. The famous comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, has said he writes jokes every day. He marks a big X on his calendar for every day he writes and he has focused on keeping the streak going. Jerry does not comment on the quality of his jokes, instead he is solely interested in writing daily. Similarly, I focused on speaking in every meeting within the first 10 minutes. (10 minutes has no special significance, it is a random number I came up with.) I did not judge how well I contributed. The goal was to stop getting in my own way by overthinking everything. In 2021, I even came up with a way to describe myself “Recovering perfectionist, Aspiring happy-to-be-me-ist”
I kept my streak going by saying something in every “big” meeting, and explicitly ignored if my comment or contribution was a good one or not.
The Intangibles - Confidence, calmness and eye contact
Project confidence in your voice even if you don’t have the answers. Be calm and speak at the same even pace, even if you are feeling nervous internally. It is never as bad as it feels and the best thing you can do is project calmness. And continue making eye contact, or nod your head to connect with the speaker.
These are practical tips that you can get started with today. Thinking on your feet is not all that is hyped to be, we can easily master this with discipline and intent!
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