5 Keys to Thinking on Your Feet
“Charles, what do you think about the idea of ____________?”
I hear this type of question quite often in my conversations with people. I suppose that my reputation of being an “idea guy” naturally welcomes such questions. I do encourage people to ask them because I know that engaging questions will often make me a better thinker and person.
Nevertheless, it’s not easy to answer thoughtful questions, especially on the spot. More often than not, these questions are filled with several layers of thoughts, presuppositions, and motives for asking. People want real insights that impact their ability to execute an idea they believe in. Granted, there are some people who want to ask just to ask and others who just want to play devil’s advocate on any topic of conversation (You know who you are.).
By nature, I am not great at thinking on my feet. I’ve never been good with spontaneity nor spinning a conversation. It’s just not me. I’m naturally an introvert who has embraced extroverted activities for the sake of pursuing my passions. I do marvel at people who appear to be so quick on their feet (even if many of them are faking their way through a conversation).
I just came to terms several years ago that while I am not naturally a quick thinker on my feet, I needed to strategically build my ability to do so. Here are some things I’ve done to become a better thinker on my feet:
- Anticipate the Moment – Embrace the fact that you’re going to have numerous moments in your life when you’re put on the spot. You will find yourself in a meeting, interview, panel, or the like when someone will ask you for your insights. Get in the habit of anticipating the types of questions that might come up in an upcoming engagement. When appropriate, ask for questions ahead of time so that you can wrap your mind around some of the talking points. Everyone will benefit when you do this.
- Write Often – One of the primary reasons I started blogging was to help sharpen my thoughts on various topics. I find that writing things down brings clarity and heightens my ability to articulate on my feet. I often rely on my writing to help shape answers on the spot. What looks spontaneous to the listener(s) is often more planned than they know.
- Ask Questions – Most questions need more questions that can help bring focus and clarity. Give yourself permission to ask clarifying questions about context, motive, nuanced terms, etc. I’ve found that asking good questions in response to a thoughtful question can lead to some great insights.
- Think Goal Before Answer – I’ve come to understand that the goal of any conversation is rarely found in the questions themselves. In other words, the primary objective of responding to a question is not to figure out the answer. Rather, it’s to help the person identify what they are trying to achieve and then helping them get there. The point is not about getting the person asking the question a smart answer. It’s actually to help them understand what’s driving the question in the first place and then seeing how you might be able to support them in getting there.
- Stay Intellectually Honest – If you don’t know something, admit it. Faking an answer in hopes of not losing face is a horrible path to take. Unfortunately, I see that way too often among leaders. Stay intellectually honest. People appreciate it when you’re not making stuff up. In fact, people aren’t expecting all the answers to come from us. Period. Be upfront and communicate your desire to move the ideas presented in the conversation forward. It’s more about working together than coming off as the guy or gal who knows everything.