A few months ago, I did a mentoring session with someone who wanted to get better at thinking on her feet. Specifically, she described feeling tongue-tied in the moments when her boss stopped by her desk to ask her for an opinion on some decision, technical or otherwise. I identified with this a lot; I think it’s fairly common for introverts, who tend to need more time on their own to process ideas, as opposed to extroverts who thrive off the stimulation from bouncing ideas back and forth in a group. I'm going to break down some tactics for handling these situations into three categories: in the moment, afterwards, and before the next time.
In The Moment
I think that when you’re in the moment and your brain freezes, part of the anxiety is from feeling like someone's shoved a pop quiz in your face, with an impossibly short time to try to pass it. I worry that if I don’t come up with the right words, my boss will think I’m stupid or not constantly thinking about Important Work Topics. Or perhaps even worse, if I steer a decision in the wrong direction, I’ll have ruined everything. And this combined with a tendency to go over conversations later on and try to replay them and see all the areas where I could’ve done better, if only I could script my life like a witty and fast-paced Aaron Sorkin dialogue…well, it’s not a very productive way of approaching these situations.
A more productive frame might be to consider a different set of goals. Any boss that makes a snap judgment based on a single short interaction isn’t someone whose good opinion you have a lot of control over winning anyway, so your focus should be on getting stuff right in the long-term. So, in the moment of that particular conversation, your goal is to understand the question and context as much as possible. It’s information gathering, not impromptu opinionating.
As always, consider your particular audience. I got feedback in a performance review once that my manager knew I was committed to helping the team succeed, but basically he thought it would help people’s perceptions of that if I were able to demonstrate more initial enthusiasm to new project ideas rather than immediately jumping to the ways in which it might fail. I’m trying to help when I do that! If I didn’t want you to succeed, I would just let it die with indifference :P But ok, not everyone reads it that way. I’m dispositionally still not a “ooo shiny new thing!” person, but it has seemed to help to at least start with something like, “oh cool, so you want to [the positive part of the goal]? And this would let us [whatever vision is being sold]?”
Plus, while you’re restating the question to confirm your understanding and asking follow up questions about details, you’re also buying some time for your brain to churn on in the background to possibly come up with some preliminary statement: “based on what I’m hearing from you right now, it sounds like ___ might be a good place to start. What do you think?” In general, “thinking on your feet” can also just be considered “thinking out loud,” which isn’t natural for many of us but you can get more comfortable with it over time, especially if you consider that the person asking wants your opinion and wants to stay connected while you’re thinking something over.
Even if that doesn’t happen, though, in the vast majority of cases it should be acceptable to say something along the lines of, “ok, I think I understand the question, but I’ll need a bit more time to think through it. When do you need my input by?” or even, “you know, I’m not sure what I think about that just yet. I’d like to [some set of actions, including consulting others/the internet or doing some exploration], could I get back to you by [however long you think you’d need to feel more confident in your conclusions]?”
Really those are just variations of “I don’t know yet, but I will find out and I need to do it in my way” which when you’re not used to it, can feel kind of scary to broach. If you feel you need permission to take that route, I am hereby granting it! :) You are allowed to propose a way of doing things that will work better for you, and good managers will help you figure out the intersection between the constraints of the work and your strengths and needs. From there it does take some practice to train your ego to be ok with this approach, but hopefully you’ll receive enough positive feedback. And in any case, it’s worth trying if your alternatives are saying nothing at all or saying something that makes you wince later.
Ideally you’ve already set yourself up for following up later with a more thought-out conclusion, but even if you hadn’t, there’s nothing stopping you from doing so anyway. If you’re worried about being seen as someone that’s indecisive, that can be mitigated by demonstrating what you’ve taken into account later that you didn’t before. People very much value thoughtfulness, delivered within a reasonable timeframe, which doesn’t have to be on-demand. Also, you can use this technique even if you’re not changing your mind, when you’re instead wanting to further strengthen your initial response, like, “I’m even more confident now that this is the right thing to do because ___.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve even done this for some interviews—if there was a question I felt like I flubbed a bit or had more to say on after later consideration, I’ve emailed my interviewer with a (still mostly concise) answer. I haven’t gotten up the courage to ask my former-interviewers-now-colleagues whether they responded well to this, and no one I’ve interviewed on the other side has done it yet either, so I’m not totally sure on how successful it is. But in general it makes me feel better that for most decisions*, the “it’s too late!!” point is much farther off than you’d usually think in the moment.
Before the Next Time
The tactics in the previous two sections might be ok if they only need to be used once awhile, but if you find yourself frequently confronted with situations where you fear freezing, it might be worth considering applying some longer-term strategies as well.
First, for every new manager I have, I like having a “Getting to Know You” introductory conversation where we talk about our working style preferences. This was something they encouraged at Google when I first started working there and since then, I’ve had something like 11 different managers over 5 different roles in 7.5 years of working and I feel it’s been pretty useful technique. It’s less fraught to talk about this sort of thing ahead of time, before you're all up to your neck in some conflict and only then discover a difference in expectations.
My spiel includes a bit about how even though I can come across as fairly sociable and smiley, I’m still a very strong introvert in drawing energy from alone time and that one of the ways this manifests at work is that I need time to think about what I think about something. Also, sometimes I need help from others to draw out what I might be thinking, because I live in my head a lot and may forget that what’s apparent to me isn’t obvious to everyone else too. This way, I’ve done what I can upfront to mitigate the impression that I’m a taciturn bear. My manager can hopefully default to "I need to remember how KWu prefers to communicate and that she doesn't like being surprised" vs. "KWu hates everything I say."
Second, whether it’s in meetings with your manager or with others, you can “cheat” a bit on appearing as though you’re "thinking on your feet" by doing all that work ahead of time instead! I always look for an agenda. If there isn’t an agenda, I’ll ask the facilitator if there’s anything I should prepare. If there is one (thank you, meeting facilitators doing a good job), then I can reflect on it a bit and mentally plot out a few likely directions for where the conversation might go and what I think about it, before anyone’s asking questions. It’s also ok to just decide you don’t have an opinion on a particular topic and inform people of that, it lets them move on quickly.
Don’t despair at not looking like the kind of high energy extrovert we tend to see/hear more frequently, especially in American workplaces. You can figure out what works for you, and your strengths will be appreciated.
*of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re holding someone’s life in your hands. One of the various reasons I did not share my mother’s desire for me to become a doctor…