Monday, May 27, 2013

Why I can’t think on my feet?

In my post I'm 50 Year's Old and Still Can't Think On My Feet I wrote about how I was approaching 50 and still unable to think on my feet. I had recently been called into a meeting with another manager concerning a possible mistake one of my employees had made. Instead of standing up for this employee or articulating my thoughts on the spot, I had to go back to my office, research the issue and return to make my point. I was so disappointed with my response time I created a challenge for myself to become a stronger person in my 50th year.

As part of my "Be Strong" project, I’ve been reading one book a month that deals with an aspect of inner strength.  My latest read was Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Never has a book summed up who I am more than this book.

I now understand why I don’t have the gift of gab, why words don’t magically roll off my tongue helping me through the tough conversations. I remember the countless closed door meetings I was called into with my company’s former VP of Sales. He would point to a number on one of my spreadsheets and ask why. Why was this number not what he had anticipated? Instead of coming up with the answer, my brain would freeze; I'd assume I had made a mistake and offer to look into it. It was only after I'd left his office and was returning to my own that the answer would come to me. Why wasn't I able to think on my feet?

Susan Cain describes introversion as a person’s response to stimulation, including social stimulation. Introverts prefer lower-stimulation environments, where they feel their most alive. Whereas extroverts crave stimulation in order to feel at their best.

Every personality test I've ever taken has pegged me as an introvert, but it wasn't until I read this book that I truly understood what being an introvert meant to my daily life.  When I'm put on the spot I need time, usually alone, to think through my answer. I like to methodically formulate a response, weigh all of my options making sure I give the best or most accurate response.  I need down time to replenish my energy after overstimulation.  I think of all the conferences I’ve attended where after a long day I've been tempted to skip the social mixer so I could go back to my room to read and decompress.

I've often been embarrassed by introverted personality:
For example, in my post Discovering My Strengths here are my thoughts upon initially learning of my five strengths:
I was not pleased with the results of my assessment. My first reaction was "I thought this assessment was going to teach me something I didn’t know." I was hoping my strengths would be a little more glamorous. The above so called talents were the same traits I’ve been trying to overcome since I was the geeky uncool nerd in high school. I shut my computer off in disgust.
We live in a world that values extroverts:
According to Susan Cain:
It makes sense that so many introverts hide from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to head-talking, certainty to doubt. He prefers quick decisions at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. (Pg. 4)
The Communication Gap:
Then there was the time my company's HR Manager attacked my management skills.  She told me I was the weakest manager our company had and that my career was going nowhere.  Now in hindsight I realize she is an extrovert who doesn't understand or respect the introverted personality. She considered my quiet manner weak and not management material.

In the book Susan, also an introvert writes about the first time she had to negotiate a deal for her client while working as a Wall Street lawyer:
Then she remembered what I'd told her again and again: she was an introvert and as such had unique powers in negotiation - perhaps less obvious but no less formidable.  She's probably prepared more than everyone else.  She had a quiet but firm speaking style. She rarely spoke without thinking. Being mild-mannered, she could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. And she tended to ask questions - lots of them. And actually listen to the answers, which no matter what your personality, is crucial to strong negotiation. (Pg. 8)
Pretending to be an extrovert:
Now that I have a better understanding of who I am and what it means to be an introvert how can I reframe my strengths to shine in a world that values extroverts?

Pretend to be more confident:
When Susan was in law school she would force herself early on in class to raise her hand and say something.  Other people would sometimes refer to what she said giving her a greater presence in the classroom without her having to say much.  (I really could have used this tip when I was in college.)


Be Prepared:
When in the classroom or work meetings figure out what you are going to say and say it early.

Look for opportunities to have one-on-one conversations.

Ask questions. Lots of them. Listen to the answers.

Carve out restorative niches into throughout your day:
Leave the office during lunch.  Find a quiet spot to read and reflect.

Manage your energy.

Get thru it - you will come out a little stronger:
Shortly after reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking I had to facilitate an eight hour training session at my organization. Twelve employees were in attendance including our President and VP of Operations both of which are extroverts.  I was the speaker for four of the eight hours. It was held two hours away and I was one of the drivers. Three employees piled into my car the morning of, so I did not have an opportunity to decompress before the training.  

I prepared for two full days prior to the training; practicing what I was going to say, preparing handouts and packets for everyone to review as I presented the information.  Despite my preparation my brain still froze a couple of times during my presentation. When I wasn't able to think of the interest term our vendor uses when we don't follow one of their procedures, our extroverted President jumped in and volunteered "exorbitant." Then the phrase came to me "past due." I asked lots of questions giving me a break from speaking and allowing everyone to provide input and learn from each other.  The training was deemed a success and our President has asked me to organize another one for October.

What is next?
So now I realize, "thinking on my feet" is never going to come natural to me and I will always have to work at it. I am now going to change the focus of my Be Strong" project to incorporating Susan's faking-it strategies into my life.

Are you an introvert?  Do you pretend to be an extrovert?  Do you have suggestions for carving out restorative niches or for helping me maintain my energy during the workday?

Please note, I am an Amazon affiliate
If you enjoyed this post you may also like:
How to Dress "Strong" At Work
Determining My Myers-Briggs Score
The Gift of Fear


  1. For many years i thought i was an extrovert, but i am not! [are the non-capital i's a tip?] i grew up in a family of extroverts, went to relatively small schools where everyone got a chance to speak, and i am smart so got called on a lot, but always knew the answer.

    Have often been frustrated that my boss asks those spreadsheet-type questions, and appreciate your telling my why i never know the answers right then, but can always ferret them out - later. it may be that you can continue to establish yourself as an "expert" or "go to person" so that thinking on your feet is not so important. Or, even just say sometimes, 'you know. we introverts need thinking time. i'll let you know in a little while.''

    i very much admire your goals of self improvement and you dedication to helping other women to do the same. good work, Savvy!

  2. Always been an introvert - no question about it. I'm also pretty bad at thinking on my feet. I communicate best in writing, not in real time or in person.

  3. I know I am an introvert but I can sometimes pretend to be extrovert.

    And sadly, it's true, extroverts are highly valued. I guess it's because we come across as slow minded because we require time to respond while they come back quick with some kind of response.

    As for the meetings - being extremely prepared is the answer. Practice responses for questions they may ask. And make presentations self explanatory - have detailed descriptions so you don't have to rely so much on memory.

  4. Your post is a wonderful tribute to the power of introverts. People who stop and reflect on what they have to say before saying it make a much more meaningful contribution than those with the so-called "gift of gab." Power on!

  5. I love this post! I never really considered myself an introvert, but I do think a lot of these things relate to assertiveness and confidence. Thanks for sharing tips! Stopping by from SITSSharefest

  6. I am much better in a professional environment than a personal one as far as thinking on my feet goes. When someone says something not so nice, those are the times I struggle with the most, I think because I am so shocked, I don't know how to respond. I always come up with my comeback after the fact...of course way too late. I liked your suggestion "pretend to be confident." If you do that enough, you WILL become more confident!

  7. I think I am an introvert in some settings and an extrovert in others. Sometimes it really depends on how I'm feeling. When I don't feel well I become much more of an introvert.

    There is so much power in understanding and respecting who we are. I'm glad you're finding more truths about yourself. Best wishes on your continued journey. What a fun thing to be doing for your 50th.

    Happy Sharefest. I hope you have a lovely weekend.

  8. I am a complete extrovert but even I might have a hard time justifying a random # on a spreadsheet etc. My best advice, own your information and speak with authority when you can! I'm stopping by today via the sharefest.

  9. What a cool post. I love when a post is so authentic and real. I'm completely an extrovert but that doesn't mean that I don't struggle with being authentic or finding ways thru socially awkward situations. I love that you talked about how you worked through one such scenario of you're own. Brave, honest, authentic...lovely.

    I recently wrote about a book I'm reading...doing a similar self-education process. The book is by Wayne Muller and it describes the GIFTS of having had a painful childhood. It's in the comments on this post:

    Thanks for your post. I loved reading it.

  10. I'm generally pegged as an extrovert by the personality tests (and I am kind of loud), but I have a lot of introvert tendencies too. I really need *both* conversation and quiet time in my day, I'd go mad without either! As for thinking on my feet, I can usually come back with a witty(??) quip, but in terms of actual arguments I need more time to make my point coherently - writing is far preferable! :)

  11. I feel so connected to this piece that I've bookmarked it so I can refer to it again and again. I am only now starting to push myself to try and be overconfident when in the past I simply just didn't say anything---and sadly I am already well into my career. Wish I had read some of these books sooner. Thank you for writing this important post.

    1. Anonymous10:30 AM

      I feel the same way. I am mid-career and haven been struggling with these issues. I'm also bookmarking this post.

  12. I love the idea of "faking" it. For often, after faking it for a while, it actually becomes true. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  13. I applaud your efforts to try to improve a skill. Thinking on your feet may be over rated. You are a thoughtful person, and a good manager does the research first before formulating an accurate response. I recommend to think of a few catch phrases you can practice and go to in these types of situations. For example: "I appreciate you bringing this issue to my attention. I will review the facts and then get back to you so we can have a productive discussion on this issue"

    By having a few phrases you can access easily you can use both of these skills. Being thoughtful has it's pluses too!

  14. Webb,
    As always I appreciate your kind words they are so motivating. Now that you've mentioned you are an introvert I see it - your comments are always well thought out and you never shoot from the hip. I like your suggestion to say something like, “I need a minute to think about that” when put on the spot.

  15. NZ Muse,
    As I recall we have the same Myers-Briggs profile. I communicate best one-on-one and prefer deep conversations to small talk.

  16. Darlene,
    And let's face it extroverts are more outgoing making them more approachable – sigh! Thanks for the great ideas on giving presentations. For my next training session my handouts will include even more detail.

  17. Krystyna,
    My intention with this post is to help understand the introvert personality and to teach introverts to use their strengths to better improve their communication skills. Extroverts have an easier time speaking in public and dealing with confrontation because they can talk their way thru or skirt the situation. People like me can't do that. I just stand there as my brain works through the situation.

  18. Gracielle,
    There is a section in the book that discusses the physiology of introverts; studies have proven introverts are more sensitive than extroverts even as babies. Cain includes suggestions and methods to help your introverted child excel in school settings most of which are designed for extroverts. Remember all those group learning sessions. I think the result of these methods is to help your child be more comfortable, assertive and confident.

  19. Miss Robin,
    There is a term for those who are caught in the middle. It is called ambivert. Cain touches on it briefly.

  20. It is always worse when someone says something not nice. I agree we are so shocked that we are speechless. The HR manager at my company is known for this. One of my employees who works half time for me and HR (and is the employee in my example) says the HR manager belittles her. It is true and the reasons why I was so upset with myself for not immediately standing up to her. It is a tough situation because she is a friend of the owners. I always tell me employees to consider her family because that is how they treat her.

  21. NJ,
    Thanks for stopping in and providing suggestions.

  22. Heather,
    Wow - thanks for the compliments. I will be checking out your blog and book recommendation. Also, looking forward to watching your challenge progress.

  23. Rachel,
    Perhaps you are an ambivert as well - in the middle. You provide an excellent example of thinking on your feet. You don't necessarily answer the question, but by providing a witty quip you keep the conversation moving. This is especially helpful in confrontational conversations.

  24. Catherine,
    I know what you mean. I can't imagine how much more confident and effective I would have been if I'd have started this challenge sooner.

  25. Monica,
    Fake it 'til it becomes a habit. Sounds like a great idea to me.

  26. Linda,
    Having a few catch phrases is a great idea. I especially like thanking them for bringing this to my attention. FYI - she is a manipulative manager and a thorn in our sides.

  27. I'm hugely an introvert and really had to learn in the past few years how to use my strengths and ameliorate my weaknesses. Working with a total extrovert really made that interesting :)

    My old boss used to put me on the spot all the time with asking questions about operations or why something did or didn't work, even when the answer would necessarily be speculative or when he wasn't asking me something I had at my fingertips - and he wanted an answer! But luckily, he wasn't a jerk, often the answer could very well be: That doesn't quite look right to me either, let me take a look and get back to you.

    Sometimes I'd be specific and say I had to talk to X or Y before I could respond. As long as we had a plan, he was fine with it. For meetings, this would work unless it was a core knowledge situation and for that, I can only say I had to learn my operations front, back and inside out so that I didn't miss anything obvious. And sometimes it was less about having or pulling out the accurate answer and more knowing how to generally apply your background knowledge to draw a conclusion or hypothesis.

  28. I am an introvert. I prefer to have time to think things through than to have to come up with things on my feet. I like that the author acknowledges that it is an extrovert's world and given us tips on how to navigate it.

  29. Oh, and thanks for linking up for Flashback Friday!!

  30. I love this book! I am exactly the same--I find it so hard to think on my feet, and this book was so insightful in helping me figure out why!

  31. I am an introvert too and horrible at thinking on my feet. I would much rather write an answer or tell the person that I would look into it before answering incorrectly. I think my inability to think on my feet cost me admission into a management training program. The HR person I had just got auditing was my interviewer and asked me a question that the only answer I could think of would have thrown my co-worker under the bus. I couldn't do that but I also couldn't think of something else that would have answered the question better. I got denied for the opportunity even though I had enough responsibility and was essentially acting like a manager just not paid like one. Thanks for sharing with #ThrowbackThursdaylinkup. I have wanted to read this book.