The more successful you become and the more authority you acquire, the more likely it becomes that you’ll face situations requiring very quick thinking. These situations may include:
- Sudden events or problems that require immediate responses,
- Unexpected objections or demands from important people, or
- Surprise questions it’s your job to answer.
At such moments, the ability to “think on your feet” enables you to increase your productivity and success levels, even in the face of difficulties. It also seems very impressive, tending to instill in others an extra measure of confidence in you, and in what you are saying. But the truth is this: quick thinking is a relatively simple skill you can practice in advance that will significantly improve your performance when under pressure of time and trouble.
It is perhaps a bit counterintuitive that quick thinking is the result of advance preparation, but as you will see, it totally is. This advance preparation includes:
Tension, fear, worry – these are the enemies of top performance. Relaxation is its foundation. This is one reason learning to relax is an extremely valuable skill.
Fortunately, you can improve your ability to relax in difficult situations by regularly practicing the following techniques:
- Concentrate on your breathing.
- Relax your muscles.
- Visualize your favorite “calm scene.”
After some practice, your involuntary reaction to difficulty will no longer be the expected level of high stress, but instead will be to feel at least partially relaxed.
The more practiced you are at relaxing, the better you will generally perform under pressure.
Play the “What If” Game
Occasionally surprises come out of the blue: there is no way you can anticipate them. But more often, a little forethought will help you anticipate events, problems, objectives, demands, or questions that others see as sudden.
This allows you to have an advance sense of what might happen at critical moments in your work and life, and to be at least partially ready with some reasonable responses.
Pay Attention to Details
A sudden difficulty, surprise, or emergency usually comes with an avalanche of information, including:
- What’s gone wrong,
- What’s important here and now,
- What resources and options are available,
- What suggestions are people making,
- What consequences may follow from each possible course of action,
and so forth.
Understanding all this information makes it easier to think of the best possible response in very short order.
Since time is of the essence, you don’t want to be going over the same information more than once. This is why it’s critical you pay close attention to what you observe and what you are told as other people bring you up to speed.
Buy Needed Time
Once you are clear about what’s going on, it’s time to start thinking of possible responses. Whether or not a reasonable response pops immediately into your head, it’s useful to buy yourself some extra time. Here’s why:
If you have an idea for a response, extra time gives you the opportunity to evaluate your thoughts before you blurt them out. You don’t want to be advocating an incomplete or wrong-headed response, or one that’s going to do more harm than good.
If you don’t have an idea for a response, extra time gives you the opportunity to generate one.
Ways to buy yourself some extra time include:
- Saying something like: “Give me a minute to think this through.”
- Staring thoughtfully at something tangible involved in the difficult situation, without saying or doing anything.
- Checking relevant reference materials or conversing with a knowledgeable person.
- Jotting some notes or making some mathematical calculations.
No matter how quickly or slowly you’re thinking, having extra time will help you better organize your thoughts and formulate a more persuasive presentation plan.
Keep It Simple
Under the double pressure of facing a difficult situation and having to respond to it quickly, there’s rarely time to formulate and implement a complex response.
Even if you can generate a complicated plan for responding to a difficult situation, it’s usually better to focus narrowly on just the first step or two.
Keeping things simple makes life easier for you. Under heavy pressure, you might have a hard time dealing effectively with all the ideas and feelings you’re experiencing. Focusing narrowly helps you give clear directions, provide fast answers to difficult questions, and put the response plan into action relatively quickly.
Perhaps even more important, the more you say and do under this heavy time pressure, the more chances there are for you to say or do something you’ll later regret.
Simplicity is also an advantage when other people are involved. Generally not as relaxed or self-possessed as you, other people in the heat of action probably won’t fully absorb and understand complicated plans. Also, trying to lay out a multi-step and multi-part response plan, to persuade everyone to go along with it, and to help people accept and perform their roles in it will inevitably delay the start of any meaningful action.
Coming up with a viable response to a difficult situation, particularly on short notice, is how you build a reputation as a quick thinker – and a problem solver. By using these tips to prepare yourself and your possible responses well in advance of any crisis, you’ll develop the valuable skills (and reputation) associated with being one who can reliably “think on your feet” when it’s most necessary.
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