We’ve all been there — you think you’re paying attention and being “fully present” in a meeting when you suddenly notice your mind has drifted elsewhere. At that precise moment, of course, is when your colleague asks you in front of a sizeable audience what your opinion is on the topic that has just been discussed.
Your mind has gone blank. What now?
There are likely numerous thoughts and responses racing through your mind, and you’re struggling to make sense of them. You feel that responding with something, anything, will make you appear to be totally in control. But you couldn’t be more wrong! Don’t make the mistake of letting a half-formed jumble of words tumble out. That’s a normal neurocognitive reflex in this kind of situation, but it doesn’t exactly constitute as the ability to think on your feet. Using the following techniques, however, does.
Don’t just allow words to blurt out of your mouth without thinking them through.
Never feel compelled to respond straight away, especially if you don’t have a suitable or credible ideas to reply with. By thinking we’re obligated to fill the silence, and fast, we often wind up digging our hole deeper. Instead, take a deep breath and give your brain a little time to exit its frenzied, just-been-caught state. Though your mind may have been drifting, if you think you were following the conversation on at least some level, there’s no harm in taking a moment to compose yourself before responding. Pausing is a great technique that allows you a chance to let your frontal brain (the part that helps you think on your feet) get caught up to speed. The key to an effective pause is maintaining eye contact with the person who gave you the question to answer. That way, they at least know you have acknowledged what they said.
There is no harm in asking people to clarify the question.
Even with a pause, you still may not feel comfortable answering the question you were asked. There’s always the opportunity to ask the person speaking to clarify their question, so long as you have confidence in your request and body language, including good eye contact. This can give the questioner the opportunity to rephrase their question, which also gives you time to prepare a response. Alternatively, you may wish to ask a clarifying question yourself, especially if you’re not totally sure what is being asked. If this is the case, you should, again, be sure to use a clear, concise, and confidence-filled tone, as it shows you are (or at least look like you’re being) attentive. This will make you appear and feel more in control of the situation.
Respond thoughtfully, and then — stop. Really. Just stop.
Even if you haven’t crafted the perfect response, don’t ever make the mistake of coming across as being “defensive,” even if it’s a difficult question. Always be mindful of the tone that you use in your response. And then, once you’ve finished making your point or responding to someone else’s, stop. Yes, I mean stop. No need to add in anything else. Nope, not even a tiny bit more. If it helps your ability to stop, maybe try using words like “finally” or “in conclusion” to act as a sort of mental-stopping mechanism for yourself. When under pressure, we can often feel the need to fill the silence with noise. Don’t give in to the urge to just ramble on, though. All you need to do is answer the question or make the point that’s required of you and then leave it at that. If further clarification is required, you will be no doubt be asked for it.
Another important piece of advice? Don’t try to make an answer up.
Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, then say you will happily take it off offline and then come back with a response. That will always earn you more credibility than saying something on the fly and looking foolish for it.
Practice, practice, practice.
Being able to train your thought patterns to respond on the spot is one of those skills that many of us take years to master. It’s the skill that could carry you through the most gruelling of sales presentations, the unexpected interview question, or that impromptu corridor encounter with a senior executive. The key is to try and remain relaxed and understand that when you are being asked for your perspective, usually someone is genuinely interested in hearing your response. So use that opportunity, stay calm, and respond appropriately to the situation.
Lis Brown is a People Leader with more than 25 years experience in the Management Consulting and Technology Industries. She has spent most of her career working around the globe and has truly embraced operating across different cultures and working styles, often being the only woman leader in the room. Lis is a passionate supporter of all aspects of Diversity and more importantly in ensuring inclusive and supportive environments for all. She is known for her strong moral compass and has no fear in speaking out and doing the right thing.