Staying Cool and Confident – when it matters most!

Confidence is key when learning to think on your feet. When you present information, give an opinion or provide suggestions, make sure that you know what you are talking about and that you are well-informed. You do not have to know everything about everything, but if you are reasonably confident in your knowledge of the subject, that confidence will help you to remain calm and collected even if you are put unexpectedly in the hot seat.

The secret of thinking on your feet is to be prepared: learn some skills and tactics, and do some preparation for situations that might put you under pressure. Then when you do find yourself faced with unexpected questions and debate, you’ll be ready to draw on these tactics and preparation, and so stay poised while you compose your thoughts and prepare your response.

Try the following strategies out, experiment and see which work best for you;

Relax

This is often the opposite of how you are feeling when you’re under pressure, but in order for your voice to remain calm and for your brain to “think,” you have to be as relaxed as possible.

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Take a second and give yourself a positive and supporting
  • Clench invisible muscles (thighs, biceps, feet) for a few seconds and release.

Listen

Listening skills are critical in developing your skills when put under pressure – active listening means that you fully understand the question or request before you reply. If you answer too soon, you risk going into a line of thinking that is unnecessary or inappropriate. To help you with your listening remember to:

  • Look directly at the questioner.
  • Check out the body language of the other party – what clues does this give you?
  • Try to interpret what is being suggested by the question or request. Is this an attack, a legitimate request for more information, or a test? Why is this person asking this and what is the intention?

Questions show that the other person is interested in your views – use this to your advantage and continue the discussion.

Have the Question Repeated

If this is a challenging pressure situation ask for the question to be repeated. This gives you a bit more time to think about your response.

Forget looking unsure; repeating the question gives the impression that you are committed to give an appropriate response. It also gives the questioner an opportunity to rephrase and ask a question that is more on point. Remember, the questioner may well have just “thought on his or her feet” to ask the question, so when you give them a second chance, the question may well be better articulated and clearer to all.

By asking to have the question repeated you also get another opportunity to assess the intentions of the questioner. If it is more specific or better worded, chances are the person really wants to learn more. If the repeated question is more aggressive than the first one, then you know the person is more interested in making you uncomfortable than anything else. When that’s the case, the next tip comes in very handy.

Develop Stalling Tactics

Sometimes you need more time to get your thoughts straight and calm yourself down enough to make a clear reply. The last thing you want to do is blurt out the first thing that comes to your mind. Often this is a defensive comment that only makes you look insecure and anxious rather than confident and composed.

  • Repeat the question yourself. This gives you time to think and you clarify exactly what is being asked. It also allows you to rephrase if necessary and put a positive spin on the request.
  • Narrow the focus. Ask a question of your own to not only clarify, but to bring the question down to a manageable scope.
  • Ask for clarification. Again, this will force the questioner to be more specific and hopefully get more to a specific point.
  • Ask for a definition. Jargon and specific terminology often confuses the flow of the conversation – always have words and ideas clarified to ensure you are talking about the same thing.

Use Silence to Your Advantage

We are conditioned to believe that silence is uncomfortable. However, if you use it sparingly, it communicates that you are in control of your thoughts and confident in your ability to answer expertly. When you rush to answer you also typically rush your words. Pausing to collect your thoughts tells your brain to slow everything down.

Stick to One Point and One Supporting Piece of Information

There’s a high risk that, under pressure, you’ll answer a question with either too much or too little information. If you give too short an answer, you risk letting the conversation slip into interrogation mode. (You’ll get another question, and the questioner will be firmly in control of how the dialogue unfolds). When your reply is too long, you risk losing people’s interest, coming across as boring, or giving away things that are better left unsaid. Remember, you aren’t being asked to give a speech on the subject. The questioner wants to know something. Respect that and give them an answer, with just enough supporting information.

This technique gives you focus. Rather than trying to tie together all the ideas that are running through your head, when you pick one main point and one supporting fact, you allow yourself to answer accurately and assuredly.

Prepare Some “What Ifs”

With a bit of forethought, it’s often possible to predict the types of questions you might be asked, so you can prepare and rehearse some answers to questions that might come your way. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person – what questions would you be asking? Think of the most difficult questions that people might ask and really think and rehearse good answers to them.

Practice Clear Delivery

How you say something is almost as important as what you say. Speak in a strong voice. (Don’t confuse strong with loud!), use pauses strategically, vary your tone and pay attention to how your message will be perceived given the intonation you use. Practice appropriate eye contact and use the level of formality that is appropriate to the situation.

End on a High

Complete your response with a quick summary statement. After that, resist adding more information and if there is silence do not dive into the silence with more information and detail. This is the time when other people are considering what you have said  – the last thing you want to do is add more detail/information that then prolongs the meeting or conversation.

Take control of the situation and make the pressure work for you, not against you!

Good Luck!

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