Archive | Thinking Tactics

Don’t Motivate Yourself, Lead Yourself

There was a theme in the questions that members of the Thinking Lab asked me this week. They all involved some form of, “how do I motivate myself?”

I’ve had an epiphany. This is a mistaken way to conceptualize the problem. Motivation is an effect, not a cause. When you lack motivation, it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

For example, a client wrote to me that he wasn’t able to get in more than about 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work. He thought he needed to motivate himself differently.

I wrote back that 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work is the most that anyone I know can sustain on a regular basis. Intellectual work is exhausting.

Now, somehow his task is misconceived. There are three areas to look at:

1. Integration to a longer term goal

How does this task advance me to achieving a goal that I personally care deeply about achieving?

So often, people take on tasks because they think you have to do them, or the task meets some criteria that someone else has set. You feel you have to do the project because it’s required for a class, or your boss told you to do it, or it’s the only way you see to get the credential you need to take the next step in your career.

In these cases, I find that the thinking about the task stops just when it should start. Why is this task so important? How will this advance a goal that matters to you? Presumably, if someone else has figured out that this is the thing to do, it is of value.

If indeed, this is the logical next step, then it must also be a step that is in principle valuable to you. If you don’t experience motivation to do the task, you have clear evidence that you do not know how this fits with your values. And so why do you think it’s the logical next step? Why do you think it’s right?

Introspecting the conflicting motivation can help you clarify your values, establish the relationship of this task to your deeper goals, and as an effect of that clarity, leave you in a place where you are either motivated to do the work–or at least willing to do the work, because you are convinced your effort matters.

2. A delimited objective

Has this task been defined properly? A well-set objective is something that you are morally certain you can complete in less than 2 weeks, and if you complete it, you will see objective progress toward an important long-term goal.

Sometimes people don’t set objectives at all. They have no clear ending point in the relatively near future, Instead, they just say, “I’m going to put 8 hours a day on this every day until I’m finished with the goal.” This is the “Just do it” approach to work, and it fails sooner or later, especially when you have a particularly complex, long-range goal.

Other times, instead of setting an objective, they just make a list of tasks to do, without any strategy for making sure that the smaller tasks will add up to the longer-range goal.

In both cases, you eventually burn out because you never get any closure on the bigger goal.

In these cases, the solution is planned evolution–you need to figure out the scaled down version of the goal that you can complete soon. This has the effect of putting a finishing line within sight. Everyone gets a burst of energy when they can see that they can finish something that matters with just a little more effort. It’s finishing that gives you satisfaction. It’s repeated finishing that makes work a constant joy.

3. Effective use of resources

There is always a limit of time, energy, and money. Always. This is not a problem to bewail, this is a fact.

Most people recognize that they have limited money, and a lot of people recognize that they have limited time. But fewer people really grasp the limits of energy.

One exception is top athletes. LeBron James and Roger Federer are reported to sleep 12 hours a day. Why? To maximize the energy they have during a game.

They need that energy, not so much for their muscles as for their brains. Top athletes are not burning more calories with their muscles, they’re burning more calories with their concentration. Concentration takes physical energy.

It does so for thinkers, too. If you are tired, you cannot think straight.

Actually, the issue is wider than that. To think clearly, you need free mental “crow” space, you need energy, and you need access to the ideas being triggered from your subconscious. If you are overloaded, you can’t think straight. If you are tired, you can’t think straight. If you are tense, feeling pressured, or otherwise suppressing, you cut yourself off from critical information and you can’t think straight.

Most of what I teach helps you to manage mental resources. Some of the tactics I teach help you to conserve them. For example, interrupting strain and struggle–which will wear you out in no time–can help you be much more effective. Other tactics help you refill resources–such as the tactics to clear overload. And some help you figure out how to do more with less.

The bottom line–if you are not motivated to do the tasks that you believe are right to do, you need a strategic approach to doing your work that ensures you have tied it to your vision, delimited it so you can finish something soon, and are working within your resources.

In short, you need to lead yourself.

Great leaders inspire the team with a clear, achievable vision, they carve out well-defined tasks for team members to do, and they support their team members with the resources they need to do the tasks–and/or they help with the creative problem-solving to figure out how to complete the task with available resources.

It’s wonderful when you can work with a great leader who does this for you. But if you are responsible for your own work, these are skills you need for yourself. The effect of self-leadership is that you will be motivated. It is the cause. Motivation is the effect.

April 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How Do You Know You’ve Chosen a Good Next Step?

It’s a truism that you should break a complex or difficult project into small steps. The difficulty in applying that truism is in figuring out which of many possible steps to take next. You need to choose a good next step, quickly and effectively, without falling into analysis paralysis or perfectionism.

Let’s take a trivial example: I need to pack my suitcase and load my car after I finish writing this. There are a thousand ways I could step through that process. Some of them are long and inefficient. One of them is optimally efficient. Most are somewhere in between.

It would be a waste of my time to work out the most efficient method. Indeed, figuring out the best possible method would probably take longer than the packing.

Some people would say, you should just take a step–it doesn’t matter which.

However, if you take any step, it is possible to work yourself into a frenzy while packing a suitcase. You run from the bedroom to the bathroom to the closet and back again. If you weren’t in a frenzy before you started, you are frenzied by the time you finish.

If you’ve ever packed by the whirling dervish method, it is imprinted on your brain, and you will feel resistance to doing it again. As you pick up a shoe, it will occur to you that you can’t pack that shoe properly until you have packed something else, say the garment bag. Before you know it, everything you pick up will have an objection associated with it, and you’ll be paralyzed for a moment, not knowing where to start.

I assume nobody on this list needs help with how to pack a suitcase. The solution is to plan just a bit, so that you create some order. Then you can be reasonably efficient with very little effort. My usual method is to lay out everything to be packed on the bed. Then I select items to pack from the array spread before me. You may have a different method that works for you.

But my point is, even a straightforward task such as packing a suitcase cannot be accomplished effectively by either the “just take a step” approach or the “plan the optimal way” approach. You benefit tremendously from having a simple packing system.

So what do you do when you are taking a step into the unknown? How do you figure out the steps to take when you don’t have a system, or wide enough experience to make one easily?

This is a big question, which I could literally deliver two days of training to answer. But there is also a short answer: have a robust decision-making process, that either leads you decisively to a decent choice of next step, or immediately raises a red flag if there an urgent need to think a little more about the decision.

I’ve been sharing aspects of my decision-making process in recent posts. I believe you start where you are. You are an adult with decades of experience making choices. Most of your decisions are not a problem. Therefore, the first thing to do is to just try to make a decision about what step to take, off the top of your head.

If you can’t seem to make a decision, you need a thinking tactic to help you deal with the confusion or overload. But assuming you can make a tentative decision, then I recommend two more steps to vet it and make it stick.

First, give a reason for your next step which passes the “Laugh Test.” I wrote at length the on the value of these steps in two previous articles.

Second, ask yourself, would you be willing to take that step now?

Yes, instead of ordering yourself to take the step, ask yourself if you are willing to take it. One of three things will happen.

You may hear a “yes.” Even if the task is uncomfortable, you may be willing to do it. Wonderful: you have found a decent, doable next step. Take it. Accompanying that “yes” will be a small action impulse, that you can exploit to jump into action–if you start acting now.

You may hear a “no.” If so, it will be accompanied by a wave of resistance–and important new information to factor into your decision. You need to do a little more thinking.

Finally, you may hear a non sequitur, such as “I don’t feel like it” or “this might not be the best step.” Those answers are neither a yes nor a no.

In this case, I encourage you to push yourself to answer the question directly. Often, we do things we don’t feel like. You are not asking whether this next step is fun and wildly motivating–if it were, you’d already be taking it. You are not asking whether this is the perfect step. You know you don’t know.

You are asking whether or not you are willing to take this step.

It is crucial to get into action. When you take a step, you reinforce your values and you learn about the world and yourself. You don’t want transient feelings to get in the way of that. On the other hand, you do want to be alert to any indication that this step is going to create some significant problem for you.

Answering the question, “would I be willing to take this step?” is a great way to get a clear reading on whether you have in fact identified a good next step.

Now I face a new decision point. I could explain more or end here and get on with my packing. Would I be willing to leave it at this? Yes, I would. More another time.

February 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Add a 15-Second Check to Your Decision

As a general rule, it is proper to trust your mind. Your conscious conclusions are based on all of your past choices, your past experiences, and the cumulative expertise you’ve built up over the years.

However, when you make a decision based on limited information, you know that you may have lacked crucial knowledge. It doesn’t matter how experienced or diligent you are–it’s inherent in the situation. You need to keep your eyes open for information that would change your mind. You need a reliable way to spot evidence that you may have made a significant mistake.

That’s why, when you make a decision, I recommend a simple policy of “trust but verify.” Assume that you made good use of all of the information that was available, but take an extra 15 seconds to verify your decision with the following process:

  1. Give a one-sentence reason for your decision.
  2. Ensure your reason passes the “laugh test.”

This 15-second verification has many benefits. The first you’ll notice is that it gives you an efficient first check to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious in your decision-making. If you can’t give a one-sentence reason for your decision, or your reason doesn’t pass the “laugh test,” your decision needs further analysis.

When I say “give a reason,” I mean blurt out a one-sentence reason that sums up the process that you used to make the choice.  In certain circumstances you may need a special high-power decision process, but in general, I assume that you are an experienced thinker and decision-maker, reasonably satisfied with your existing method. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I simply suggest that you add on 15 seconds to the end of your decision process to help you verify it.

Give a reason for your conclusion. By a reason, I mean an objective, fact-based explanation for why you are going in this direction–not just a statement of your feelings. Why did you choose the way you did?

For example, suppose you decide to start work on a project before going through your email inbox. Why? Don’t settle for “it seemed like a good idea” or “I felt like it.” These are contentless. They are subjective–they simply report the state of your mind.

When you give an objective reason for your decision, you make your assumptions and your expectations explicit. For example, suppose your reason were “I want to do the project before my mind gets caught up in the other work and I can’t concentrate.”

This explanation includes some implicit predictions that you can test. It implies that if you do the other work, then came back to the project, you’d have trouble concentrating. If something happens so you don’t follow your plan, then you try to come back to project later, do you have trouble concentrating? That will validate your reason. If not, it will invalidate it.

To take another example, suppose you decide to tidy your desk first, because “Tidying the desk will take just a few minutes and make it easier for me to settle into work.” If tidying your desk starts dragging on, you will notice that your assumptions were off. In contrast, if your reason was “that’s the way I work” (a subjective explanation), nothing follows from that.

The difference between an objective reason and a subjective thought is: an objective reason includes an appeal to facts that can be validated. It could include a factual assumption, a factual prediction, a factual comparison–any factual information that has implications for the future. In contrast, a subjective thought refers only to one’s present inner state. It adds up to only “here-now-this seems good.” It has no implications for the future. It may be true, but it is useless for validating your decision. Your reason for your conclusion doesn’t need to be certain, it just needs to be fact-based.

Giving a fact-based reason for your conclusion is the first and most important step to ensuring you make the best decision possible–one that you won’t regret. You can do it in 15 seconds without changing any aspect of your decision process.

Of course, sometimes once you come up with your reason you’ll realize you can’t say it out loud with a straight face. It doesn’t pass the “laugh test.” Then you have some more work to do, but that’s another topic for another time.

January 16, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Dividing Up the Mind

How do you understand something? The most basic way is to break it up into its component parts, and then see how they fit or work together to form the whole. Those are the logical processes of analysis and synthesis.

In the case of the human mind, it is not obvious how to break the whole into parts. There have been several schools of thought. In my view, getting this analysis correct is the key to be able to improve your own mind. Let me give a very simplified review to show what I mean:

Freud divided the mind into the id, ego, and superego. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it: ‘According to this model, the uncoordinated instinctual trends are the “id”; the organized realistic part of the psyche is the “ego,” and the critical and moralizing function the “super-ego.”‘,_ego,_and_super-ego

In the Wikipedia article, the authors say this division helped categorize mental illness. But the reality is that he saw all three of these as deterministic aspects at war with each other. You are stuck with inner conflict. There is no way to improve the situation. As a result, Freudians are not known to help their patients. (They’re known for keeping them as patients for decades.)

More recently, many pop-psychologists have divided up mental functioning into “right brain” and “left brain” functioning. The right brain is supposed to be the holistic, intuitive, creative, emotional side. The left brain is supposed to be the logical, analytical, verbal side.

This division was inspired by interesting research with “split brain” patients, which showed that the left hemisphere specializes in language and analysis, and the right hemisphere in less verbal activity. But serious scientists concur that pop psychologists distort the findings of neuroscience. There is no absolute localization on the two sides, and in many cases, one side can develop needed connections if the other side is damaged. (See )

The popular division is a metaphor for reason vs. emotion. It has become popular because most people who promote “right brain/left brain” say that you need to use both sides of your brain, i.e., both reason and emotion. I agree with this advice as far as it goes. You cannot be a successful thinker by ignoring your emotions, and you cannot be a successful creator by ignoring logic. However, I don’t think the advice is very powerful, because it doesn’t help you make the parts of your mind work together.

In contrast to these, I subscribe to the division I learned from Ayn Rand: conscious vs. subconscious. Your conscious mind is your present frame of awareness–your sense of self–and you have volitional control over it, in the sense that you can turn your attention to different things in the perceptual field or different ideas that have popped up from the subconscious.

Your subconscious is your mental database of past observations and conclusions. On the tabula rasa view, your subconscious starts out empty. Everything in there was grasped first in conscious awareness, then stored. This means that all thoughts and feelings are coming from the same mental database. The differences between them are only in how closely related they are to your values, and therefore how strong a feeling they generate, and in whether the connections were made by a verbal analysis or by an association.

This division is very fruitful. It leads to all kinds of advice to reduce the mental load on your conscious mind. And all kinds of advice to pursue leads coming up from the subconscious, whether they are thoughts or feelings. And it leads to the recommendation that you test every conclusion you reach, because your mental databanks are only as good as your present checking process.

November 17, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting emotions you are feeling, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally triggered, and need a quick way to get emotionally centered.

How: For each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence.

Why: The 8 families of emotions cover all of the basic value-judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative versions of each family, you naturally balance disproportionate emotional responses.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently? What regrets do I have?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a true positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?

3) After you have finished naming all of the feelings, you may be grounded. If so, sum up your situation in a sentence.

If you are still feeling somewhat overloaded, I recommend you clarify the deep rational values at stake. To do this, first you may need to challenge first thoughts if any of your statements are false or exaggerated. In addition, go through each statement and identify any deep rational values at stake.  These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.


  • Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it, even if you don’t think you do.


Situation: Someone just cut me off making a turn.

Anger: He should look where he’s going.
Gratitude: I’m glad the guy behind me saw me brake.

Fear: I almost had an accident.
Relief: Thank goodness I was able to react in time.

Despair: These lousy drivers should be taken off the road.
Hope: Maybe defensive driving courses can help.

Guilt: I was a little bit distracted.
Pride: I’m glad I don’t text while driving!

Frustration: My heart is still pounding and I can’t seem to calm down.
Confidence: I’m glad that I have good reflexes.

Desire: I really need a little peace and quiet.
Aversion: I don’t want to discuss this with anyone.

Joy: I guess I feel good to be alive.
Grief: This reminds me of my friend who died in a car accident.

Love: I loved my friend.
Indifference: I don’t care what the other drivers think.

Summing Up: I need a little time to catch my breath and just appreciate that I’m okay.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process–it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.


References for Members of the Thinking Lab

  • For steps to challenge first thoughts, see the Three Pass Review
  • For steps to clarify your motivation, see   the Goal-Clarification process
  • You can give someone else an empathy bath, but then I recommend that you identify not just their feelings and the idea that seems to be behind it, but the deep rational value at stake. (See this discussion of  deep rational values aka universal values.) Otherwise you risk reinforcing their old baggage.

July 31, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use Your Listening Skills to Help You Think

When something’s on your mind, talking over the issue with a friend is a real value. A good listener can gently encourage you to untangle your thoughts, without taking over the conversation and/or enforcing his own agenda. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a good listener on call every time you had something you needed to think through?

You can be that person for yourself–if you train yourself to listen to your own subconscious.

Listening to your own subconscious is similar to the kind of “active listening” you use when listening to others. You need to slow yourself down, stop multi-tasking, pay attention, and actually take in the thoughts you’re hearing internally. In active listening, the listeners repeat back what they’re hearing to make sure they get it. In listening to the subconscious, you are the listener and you write down what you’re hearing from your subconscious. In both cases, having the thoughts reflected back helps you get objectivity on them.

It’s particularly important to “listen to the subconscious” using “thinking on paper,” because listening to your own mind takes extra concentration. You don’t have another person there, keeping you on track. You don’t see body language and other cues that keep you connected to the conversation. So you need “thinking on paper” to help you focused on what’s happening.

Your subconscious is a storehouse of knowledge, values, and associations. If you are feeling frustrated, there is likely some very helpful information in there that could help you out of the bind. By taking a few minutes to listen to your subconscious, you can get the most relevant, most obvious information out of storage and into consideration where it can help you.

So, next time you need an ear to listen to your problems, and no one’s handy, lend an inner ear. You can be your own best listener.



November 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Deja Vu All Over Again

“How did I wind up here again?” We’ve all had the experience: a bad situation keeps repeating itself. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a particular person that keeps coming up and going badly. Maybe it’s the feeling of being overloaded by the administrivia again–even though you cleared it out last week. Maybe it’s seeing a project fizzle to a stop again. You keep gearing up on it, taking a step, and it never gets any momentum.

When you are feeling “deja vu all over again,” chances are you are “flailing” on the task. Flailing means trying the same approach again and again, without getting a different result. When this happens, you always need to step back, and change something farther back in the process. The mistake is always a few steps back, not right before you get in the mess. Here are a few ways you can take some steps back:

  1. Ask the experts–they often know a better way to approach problems. For example, there are great books on how deal with confrontation–and they all involve doing preparation before the confrontation occurs. (One I like is Difficult Conversations by Stone et. all.)
  2. Use a creativity process. Brainstorming and other creative processes are designed to help you generate alternatives. Brainstorming comes in many forms. A good book on it is: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking by Paul Sloane.
  3. Sometimes you can just experiment. Write down how you always do the task. Then systematically change the process piece by piece to see what makes a difference.

The bottom line is: when you are flailing (doing the same thing, again and again, and expecting a different result), you need to stop what you’re doing and make a radical change.

Unless you like having deja vu all over again.


October 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How do you know you need to think about that?

Some things need thinking. Some things don’t.

Thinking is a purposeful process of integrating new observations with existing knowledge and values to figure out something new. The goal of thinking is either to put something into words (conceptualize it), infer a conclusion, make a decision, or imagine a new possibility (as in forming hypotheses or coming up with possible solutions to a problem). Thinking is a means of achieving many goals, but most goals are action goals, not thinking goals.

If you’re stuck, you probably are confused about whether you need to set an action goal or a thinking goal.

For example, if your goal is “write an article” and you’re stuck, you’re stuck in action. You probably need to think about a few things before you can write, such as “what should my theme be?” and “what are the main points I want to make?”

In contrast, someone in my workshop needed to figure out how to train his replacement on new software which might or might not be released before he moved. In this case, the solution is not something he could figure out by himself. It was literally impossible for him to make a plan with so many unknowns. Instead, he needed to raise this problem with the other people involved to even get clear on the scope of the problem. He didn’t have enough information.

There are three tests for whether you can profitably think about something:

1) Is this a question that can be answered by thinking in general?
That is, is the goal to conceptualize, decide, infer, or imagine something? Can you  figure this out based on things you already know, or are observing?

2) Do you want and need to know the answer? If you already know the answer, you don’t need to think about it. If you don’t care about the answer, you shouldn’t waste time and effort thinking about it.

3) Are you the right person to figure out the answer? That is, do you have reason to believe that you know things relevant to the question? If you don’t know anything about the topic, you will have to do research or get information from someone else. That’s an action goal. You can’t think unless you have relevant knowledge to draw on!

If you’re not sure why you’re stuck, these three questions can help you figure out what you need to think about versus what you need to do:
What information do we need to answer this question?

  • What can I do in this situation?
  • Who can help answer this question?
  • What do I need to tell them about the issue?


June 30, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ask An Easier Question

Asking yourself questions is essential in thinking. It’s the way you get information out of your subconscious and into conscious consideration.

Your subconscious is a huge repository of past observations, past conclusions, past training. It is where your expertise resides. But only some fraction of that information can be activated at a given time. Questions activate the information so you can use it into your thinking.

But what do you do if the information lies dormant–even when you ask yourself about it?

Suppose you ask yourself a reasonable question (like “what should I be doing right now?” or “how am I going to explain this to person X?” or “how are we going to get this done on time?”) and the response you get back from your subconscious is “I don’t know”?  Or the more emphatic: “Aaaaaye donno.”

When this happens, don’t despair. You probably know much more than your subconscious is letting on. What happened is that the question you asked was a little too hard for you. You don’t have a ready-made, pre-packaged answer for that question. You will need to put one together from pieces of information–pieces you can lure from your subconscious databanks by asking an easier question.

To me, “ask an easier question” stands for the more complicated thought, “soften up your subconscious with patsy questions it can answer that inexorably lead to your figuring out the answer to the question it resisted.” It’s like you’re playing “good cop” with the suspect–playing along with what you get, edging toward what you really want–a full confession of the truth!

So, for example, if I were a little stuck on a question like “how am I going to explain this to person X,” I might ask myself things like, “what does X need to know?” and “how would I explain it to someone else who’s not as touchy?” The right follow-up questions would be ones I felt I *could* answer. Spending the time on them would help me put into place the information I would need to build a full answer to the original question.

“Ask an easier question” is a sound bite to remember. When your subconscious says, “Aaaaye donno,” ask yourself an easier question, and find out what it *does* know that can help you with your task.

May 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking on Your Feet

I often get asked, how do you apply “Thinking Tactics” to thinking on your feet? For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and your boss suddenly turns to you and asks for your opinion. How do you come up with a quick answer? You can’t stop to “think on paper” in that situation.

First, I want to point out that most of what we call “thinking on your feet” is actually “remembering on your feet.” Succinct, essentialized answers are rarely entirely spontaneous. If you know in advance that you will be asked questions (after a presentation, or at an interview, for example), it’s crucial to prepare for them in advance. Make a list of questions you might get and figure out your answers by sitting at your desk and thinking on paper. This gives you the time and quiet to think in depth. Then you can simply draw on that past thinking when you’re asked the question on the spot. And you look very sharp in the process!

That said, we all get into situations where we’re asked questions and don’t know the answers off the top of our heads. What do you do then? You can’t just will yourself to answer–that’s a prescription for going blank. Sometimes you can put off giving an answer, by promising to get back to the questioner with your thoughts.

But sometimes you need to say something right then. In this situation, I suggest you turn the conversation into “thinking aloud.” Do this deliberately. Say something like, “That’s a good question.  Let me think aloud here to see if I can work out an answer.”

When you give that preamble, you warn the other person that they shouldn’t expect a polished, succinct answer. You get tacit permission to ramble a bit as you follow your train of thought, which is what you need to do. You balance your need to do some thinking, with the listener’s need to hear your answer right now.

“Thinking aloud” has the same basic rule as “thinking on paper.” Use full sentences! That helps you think step by step. And since you have an audience, make each sentence as intelligible to the other person as possible. Your thinking aloud may turn into a discussion as they chime in with helpful information or answers to questions you pose in your thinking.

As soon as you have an answer, switch from “thinking aloud” to summing up: Deliberately bring the conversation back to the question and your answer. Say something like, “Okay, now I have an answer to your question….” Then state your answer as succinctly as possible.

Alternately, if you find that you are raising a lot of issues, and there isn’t going to be a quick answer, you could sum up with something like, “Well, you see that there are too many issues here, and I’m not going to get an answer off the top of my head. I think I need some time to look at the issues I’ve just raised so I can give you a responsible answer.”

By warning them that you are thinking aloud, then deliberately summing up your answer, you can maintain a professional demeanor, even when you’re put on the spot.

Next time you are impressed by someone “thinking on their feet,” pay careful attention to whether they are doing new, fresh thinking aloud–or are cashing in on previous thinking they’ve done. Either way, you can learn something about how to capitalize on your own thinking prowess when you need to “think on your feet.”



April 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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