Why do we always think of the perfect comeback after the fact? What stops us from being the Smart Alecks we believe we are (in our minds)? Newsflash: We aren't as good at thinking on our feet as we’d like to be. This article has seven tips on how to change that.
The Wrong Guy
Ever watched the entertaining video clip of BBC's famous on-air mishap featuring Guy Goma as Guy Kewney? For those that aren't familiar, BBC interviewed the wrong 'Guy' (punny), live, on-camera.
Guy Goma, a job applicant, had gone to BBC's headquarters for an accounting job interview. Coincidentally, BBC had scheduled an on-air TV interview around the same time with another industry expert. This interview was about a legal lawsuit related to music piracy, and the expert's name was Guy Kewney.
While both men waited in different reception areas for their interviews, the producers, in a classic case of mistaken identity, interviewed Guy Goma on-air instead of Guy Kewney!
Guy Goma exhibited remarkable calmness under pressure and didn't let up that the wrong man was being interviewed. He even managed to develop plausible responses to the interviewer's questions even though he was hardly the expert they had assumed he was.
The video on BBC's YouTube channel is worth checking out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6Y2uQn_wvc&list=LLlq8pUuMI2ORdSxP73B_hBw&index=1925
Mask with the broken strap
More recently, I watched a doctor on live TV as he prepared to demonstrate how to wear protective masks to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The first thing that happened as he put his main prop on – his mask – was that the ear strap snapped. Yikes!
However, without any sign of panic or cursing, the doctor improvised and completed the segment. By the end, broken strap was a non-issue.
Calm in the storm
Both these are examples of some excellent thinking on one's feet.
Guy Coma kept his cool, didn't embarrass the TV network, even managing to sound credible through what, one can assume, must have been a harrowing time.
The doctor on TV didn't appear frazzled. He continued as planned, like nothing untoward had happened.
These are just a couple of instances of what thinking on your feet under fairly intense scrutiny and pressure look like.
While we may not encounter this level of public scrutiny, we run into everyday situations that require us to use this highly valuable yet underrated skill.
Why do we need to be good at thinking on our feet?
I'm not sure about you, but I dream of being the one to throw out funny comebacks and one-liners. I say dream because, almost always for me, my repartees come a little too late. I think about what I could have said AFTER the person I'm in conversation with leaves the room.
While needing to sound clever and witty is fun for the ego, there are far more important reasons to think well on our feet.
We are often part of communications that require quick-thinking such as a job interview or being at the receiving end of pushy sales presentations. Clear and timely thinking can go a long way in helping us; from landing our dream jobs to not being stuck with a timeshare in Timbuktu.
While we are not all trained hostage negotiators, every one of us is bound to encounter tense, real-life situations that require defusing through swift but well-thought-out and articulated words.
And sometimes, we need to learn to think on our feet, just to win arguments with other highly-skilled-at-arguing friends and family. That alone can be oh-so-satisfying.
Why do we struggle to think on our feet?
When we are under stress - here's what happens to the body. As soon as our brain perceives (through our eyes or ears) a stressful situation, the amygdala is activated, sending SOS signals to the hypothalamus.
Alarms go off, leading to a cascade of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc.) in the body. Essentially, our flight or fight response is activated – for more details, read this post.
The focus of our brain at this stage is survival and protection of critical organs. The brain can't be bothered with spending precious energy coming up with creative or intelligent-sounding quips at that stage.
As a result, we experience brain fog; our thinking gets muddled.
That said, we can train our brains to practice quick-thinking in situations when we are NOT under stress. That way, our ability to think clearly becomes second nature, not requiring tremendous energy sources at times of need.
How? And more importantly, is this a learnable skill?
Is thinking on our feet a skill that can be cultivated?
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer: Yes, most definitely, but like with most things in life, how good you get depends on how much effort you put into getting better.
Here are seven tips to get better at thinking on our feet.
1. Don't just hear. Listen.
There is a world of difference between hearing and listening.
When I ask my teen to clean her room, she usually hears me but doesn't listen since her attention is focused on the anime she's watching. She hears no difference between my voice and the sound of a lawnmower – they are essentially the same to her – background noise! She doesn't comprehend what I say because her attention is elsewhere.
On the other hand, active listening is when you pay attention to the words coming out of the other person. You listen with an intent to understand the thought behind those words; instead of merely hearing the words while framing auto-responses in your head.
Stop hearing. Start listening.
2. Buy time with questions
Let's say you listened intently but don't have a clear response yet. Instead of letting your mouth shoot off some random syllables, it's best to buy time by asking questions, even if it's in answer to a question.
But first, repeat the question you were asked, to let the questioner know you heard them the first time.
Let's say you are asked this question in a job interview - 'Where do you see yourself five years from now'?
Ideally, you'd have prepared for this question since it's a stock-interview question. But I'll assume you didn't because I know how busy you always are.
Replying to the question with 'How would I know, do I look like Nostradamus to you?', or 'In five years, I'll be your manager' is likely not going to score you any points in the interview.
Instead, try this:
'When you say in five years, can you explain the context a little bit more'? or
'When you ask where I see myself in five years, are you referring specifically to my role in the organization or related to the entire industry?'
Repeating and asking a question in response to a question forces the original questioner to go on the defensive; they'll now try to elaborate their ask.
You sow doubt in the questioner's mind making them wonder if they phrased the question correctly the first time. This will leave you not just with the benefit of the doubt but more time to craft a good response.
Buying time is a technique middle and high school debate teams use. They constantly ask the opposing team for definitions, even in the most obvious cases, while their team members use that time to craft better responses.
3. Use silence instead of filler words
If you've racked your brain and have nothing intelligent to say right away, smile or nod, as appropriate. Non- verbal cues are great at letting the other person know you care about the conversation.
Silence, even for a few moments, is a perfectly acceptable answer in such situations. You want to stop the muscles in your mouth from acting before the brain has time to send instructions out.
You've probably seen or experienced how, when we have trouble thinking on our feet, we resort to using filler words such as 'Hmm,' 'Essentially,' 'Right,' etc. In truth, this is because we're starting to construct sentences without even knowing how they are going to end. A risky proposition, for sure.
Silence is a great alternative in such cases.
4. Take rainchecks
The use of rainchecks is a technique that works when the stakes are high. It's quite alright for you to nod away in everyday chit chats to keep the conversation going. However, if you are pressured for your opinion on an important matter or under sales pressure in a purchasing decision, feel free to borrow 'Rule#1' from the worldwide consulting industry.
Consultants' Rule#1: When in doubt, however microscopic, say this: 'I need to evaluate some more. I will get back to you soon'.
No harm, no foul. You don't need to elaborate or sugar coat that statement. But, to be fair, be specific about how much longer you'll need for said evaluation. Is 'soon' a day, a week, a year, or never?
Taking rainchecks helps take pressure off in stressful situations.
5. Know (and recall) your material
Imagine playing Scrabble. Your choice of words in the game is limited to the seven alphabet tiles on your deck. Yes, it would be fantastic if you had the missing 'E,' but since you don't, the word 'Electee' is out of the question.
You can only play with what you have.
Quick-witted thinking is a little like accessing your Scrabble tiles. Your choice of thoughts is limited by your general knowledge of concepts and events. So, try to increase what you know.
But bear in mind, there are two facets at play here – how much you know and how quickly you can recall that knowledge. Yes, I had learned about torque, linear, and angular momentum in middle school, but I admit, there is no way on earth I can have an intelligent conversation about that topic today.
So, if you want to be good at thinking on your feet, sound wise, and make informed choices, you first have to brush up on the underlying material. Being well-read helps.
Also, aim for cross-functional expertise instead of unidimensional thinking. The cleverest of them all are people who draw from diverse fields and sources to articulate their arguments.
6. Be present and understand the 7-38-55 rule
Being present implies not just physical presence but mental attendance too. You can avoid severe buyer's remorse with this quality alone. Practices such as mindfulness meditation can help cultivate and strengthen the ability to remain present.
Absent-mindedly saying yes to a year of PTA commitments, or nodding vigorously to a colleague's random suggestion about work just so he leaves your cube, are examples of short-term band-aids to long term wounds.
Being fully present ensures that you don't just listen to the other person's words but pay attention to all non-verbal cues.
Remember the 7-38-55 rule of communication. According to this rule, communication is about 7% spoken words, 38% tone of voice, and 55% non-verbal in nature.
In other words, effective communication requires not just your ears but your eyes and the brain to also function in tandem.
Finally, imitate Improv artists.
In improv (improvisational theater or comedy), participants collaborate to deliver unplanned and unscripted dialogues. A key technique used in improvisation is the Yes…And method.
First say, 'Yes' to agree with what someone says. Then, use a version of 'And' to add details to expand the conversation further. This can be fun, and you'll never be short of ways to keep the conversation going.
For instance, check out the following improvised dialogue when two friends meet.
Person1: It was a scorching day.
Person2: Yes, it was really hot, and our community swimming pool was closed for emergency repairs.
Person1: Oh, that's right. I heard about that. How annoying! Since I don't have a pool either, I went over to my friend Jon's.
Person2: Jon Smith, right? He is quite a character.
Person1: Yes, he is. Funny you should say that. One time, Jon……
See, how you can keep this conversation going on quite endlessly in any direction you choose to take it? 'Yes..And' is a great technique to use in icebreakers or for random small-time chit-chats!
Articulation is the practice of being succinct - using an optimal number of words to convey an idea. Unfortunately, we're not always in situations where we can correctly articulate our thoughts. In such cases, quick-witted thinking can get you out of a pickle or two.
Being good at thinking on our feet is a great life skill to cultivate. Not just to be popular in the party circuit but to be seen as a reliable adult.
Let me leave you with an exchange between two famously articulate people.
Lady Astor: If I was your wife, sir, I would poison your coffee.
Winston Churchill: If I was your husband, I would not drink it.
We may not be all quick-witted as Churchill, but we should aspire to have our wits about us to avoid unfortunate situations.
Thinking on our feet isn't just a skill needed to trade insults on Twitter; it's a handy tool to avoid self-imposed pitfalls.