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How To Think On Your Feet When Under Pressure

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

I attended a large meeting of agents at FBI Headquarters in Washington D.C. The Counterintelligence Section Chief turned to me and asked what I felt was the priority target for foreign spies in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

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My answer was based on solid information gathered by my fellow agents. I kept my answer concise and clear. The Section Chief nodded and then asked, “What operations have you initiated to stop it?”

As every head in the room turned toward me, I felt my mouth get dry and I cleared my throat so I could respond with a calm and clear voice. But the truth was awkward—I hadn’t initiated any operation against the target. Yikes!

Have any of you ever felt yourself under pressure to come up with the perfect answer when put on the spot by your CEO or supervisor? And in front of your colleagues? What if you can’t think of anything to say?

I felt a collective sigh of relief from the others that I had been the one singled out and not them. I was forced to admit the FBI struggled to find effective ways to safeguard the priority target. It didn’t help that I’m the kind of person who comes up with perfect retorts—about twenty minutes after the question is asked.

If we can train ourselves to think on our feet, we’ve mastered an important skill. Once you master it, your responses will create immediate confidence in what you’re saying.

Confidence is critical as you learn to think on your feet. Confidence allows us to respond in ways that portrays competency, trustworthiness, intelligence, and a strong mind.

Here are 5 ways you can learn how to think on your feet when under pressure:

1. PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE

The secret to thinking on your feet is to be prepared.

You cannot be over over-prepared when you enter a meeting where there is even the slightest possibility of finding yourself faced with unexpected questions.

This means taking the extra step—always. It also means you need to work very hard as you brief yourself on the issues. And the alternatives, as well as the consequences of each alternative. With a bit of reflection, it’s often possible to predict the types of questions you might be asked. You can prepare and rehearse some answers to questions that might come your way.

Yes, you may be over-prepared 99% of the time, but when you do eventually hear your name called out, you will know the answer. 

That confidence will help you to remain calm when you’re in the hot seat.

2. GIVE YOUR THINKING BRAIN TIME TO CATCH UP WITH YOUR EMOTIONAL BRAIN

The secret to thinking on your feet is learning how to stall for time. 

You’ve probably heard it said a hundred times that taking a deep breath is important.

But here is what you really need to know—if you stall for time, it gives your thinking cerebral brain time to process the facts and override the emotional limbic system that has freaked out.

3. BE SAVVY IN THE WAY YOU STALL FOR TIME

The secret to thinking on your feet is to ask for the question to be repeated, or better yet—repeat the question yourself, but this time change the wording slightly.

By changing the wording slightly, the onus is now on the person asking the question to reorganize their thoughts. Their mind is no longer solely focused on their original question. They absorb the new thought or twist you introduced when you repeated their question.

But, be clever about this. It can also be very obvious to the individual asking the question that you are stalling for time or trying to avoid answering it. The key is to slightly reword the question and subtlety introduce a new element.

For example, when I answered the Section Chief I could have reworded his question so it sounded more like, “What initiatives has San Francisco taken? Several—for example…” The attention was moved from “me” to “San Francisco.” 

If I answered with in-depth knowledge and confidence, I could have listed several operations initiated by my fellow agents. The momentum created by the direction I took the conversation would have shifted from what I personally had not done, and give credit to my colleagues as they tested out some creative approaches.

4. STICK TO ONE POINT AND SUPPORT IT WITH FACTS

The secret to thinking on your feet is to make one fabulous point instead of trying to cover everything. 

When you’re under pressure to produce an answer, there’s a tendency to try and cover up what you don’t know by giving too much information. That does nothing but leave you looking as though you haven’t organized your thoughts. You risk more probing follow-up questions from the individual who asked the question.

Long answers are always risky because they not only bore the listeners, they can make you look as though you are trying too hard to impress. 

Instead, focus on sticking to the point and support it with facts.

5. HAVE THE BALLS TO ADMIT YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER

The secret to thinking on your feet is looking intelligent and competent, even when you don’t have the answer.

If you don’t know the answer, say so. Don’t risk your reputation by trying to make something up. You will look foolish and that will lower your confidence, both in your own eyes and in the eyes of the others in the room.

What tips do you have for thinking on your feet when under pressure?

© 2015 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.”

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