Thinking On Your Feet


Why improve on your ability to think on your feet? Is this a skill one is born with or can you learn it?

○   Thinking on your feet is a learned skill and is dependent on various elements such as practice, experience, educational background, reading and emotional intelligence.

○   It is becoming one of the hot topics of the day because more than ever the pace of life is quicker with more information and more complex interactions with people in real time,  making it essential for us to be better in our face to face discussions.

Improving on your ability to think on your feet can be key to improving your performance in a variety of situations, such as:

○   Public speaking

○   Meetings

○   Everyday use

○   Dating

○   Confrontation of a negative nature.

○   Interaction with the boss or with his/her boss (the ability to interact with the higher authority).

○   In our home lives with our children where the issues we face are more complex and quicker than ever before.

○   In a professional capacity, to better influence others in a public forum.

○   To be better when outside of the comfort zone of our workspace and/or role. Even amongst peers when at networking functions.

○   To promote more effective interaction with other parents at children’s sporting events.

○   Finding effective methods for resolving negative situations.

○   Dealing with peers to be better able to “swim up-stream.”

○   Just to be a well rounded person.

  • Close your eyes for a moment and create a vision of the person you know professionally, personally, or you have seen who is very good at thinking on their feet. Visualize the whole person and take note of three things that person does well. What is it about the person, what do you see, hear and feel that leads you to say he or she is good at thinking on their feet?

○   Some people you may have thought of…

●         P.E. Trudeau

●         Alan Stitt

●         Martin L. King

●         Doug Taylor

●         Dr. Mike Coren

●         Dr. Wilson

●         Alan Brunicini

○   What you may see, hear, feel, and know about this person…

  • This person exudes control and is the picture of cool and calm even under extreme pressure.
  • Their words and the way they speak…never rushed or yelling, always interesting to listen to.
  • She uses her hands well and uses effective body language to project an air of confidence.
  • He is articulate and confident.
  • Even while confident in his or her expertise they are open to suggestions, truly encouraging others to speak up.
  • She is straightforward and always looks prepared.
  • He asks questions early and often before telling you what he thinks.
  • He can confidently take on others on any issue.
  • She is never afraid to stand alone.
  • He always seems to have his BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) in his hip pocket, looking prepared for anything.
  • Even though she is fully capable of standing alone, she is not overpowering.
  • They know how to work a room.
  • They are driven and have a passion for their cause.
  • She has a real presence with values.
  • He has an excellent sense of humour and is able to use it well.
  • A quick and engaging wit.
  • He has an ability to draw you in and he makes it practical.
  • She is brilliant but keeps it simple & unassuming.
  • Knowledge about his or her field makes them credible and good on his feet.
  • They are soft spoken but aggressive.
  • The 3 Question Technique 

○   This is a great technique in any impromptu situation where you need to take time to gather your thoughts, structure a reply and then articulate your thoughts and opinions so others can follow you.  It provides you with a structure, allowing you to form a concise answer that ends quickly.

○   How it works

●         When someone asks your opinion on an issue or subject,  stop and think of three questions before giving an answer.

●         For example; “What is your opinion of the NHL Lockout?”  Your answer in the form of three questions might be, ‘When I think of the NHL Lockout three questions come to mind’ 1) Why has this occurred? 2) How long is the lockout going to be? 3) And finally, what will the impact be to Hockey on a long-term basis as a result of the lockout?

●         Now you answer the three questions in the order you asked them and then end with asking for their thoughts on your opinion, provided that you are interested and the situation calls for a conversation or discussion.

○   This technique, like many others, forces you to keep your answer concise, to the point, and structured in such a way that others can listen and follow along easily…you look like you put thought into your answer and that you know what you are talking about.

  • The Press Conference Technique

○   This technique models actual press conference media relations and information giving sessions where the speaker initially addresses the subject by telling the audience his or her response to a question by giving three bullet points and then expanding on each bullet point in the order given.

  • The BME (beginning, middle, & end) Structured Technique

○   A Structured approach to giving your thoughts and opinions.

In this technique, you have a beginning statement, a middle that explains your opening and then a closing statement which summarizes the issue and then throws it back to your audience if it is appropriate to do so.

The beginning is simply your position or your opinion on the issue at hand. This is done in one or two sentences.

The middle is where you justify the beginning statement. You give one to two reasons why, starting in the middle, for example why your thinking is what it is, perhaps based on reading you have done or something you have   experienced.

Your closing statement should be one or two sentences and should always end with a throw back to the group or the person asking the question.  For example, having given your opinion it is an excellent time to ask what others think, particularly if in a situation where you need involvement or participation from others. You need not do this if in situation where you are expected to be the expert or authority on the issue being discussed.

  • The ‘What Do You Think’ Technique

○   Oftentimes this is a great technique to buy time and formulate an effective answer, and it can be an excellent technique to use when in a situation that is potentially confrontational. Using this method you simply throw the issue back to the audience or the person or persons asking for your thoughts. You do this simply by asking, “what are your thoughts on…?”

  • The Question for Clarification Technique

○   In this technique you ask questions for clarification as a way to gather your thoughts, which helps you to formulate a response with more information being given to you first. In some instances the answer to a question or issue is evident but needs questions to get it to the surface.  I would recommend asking a few questions, say around 2 to 4.

  • The Leave It With Me Technique

○   In some instances the best answer to an issue you are presented with is to respond with a request for some time to think the issue through before responding. To use this technique like a pro you must end with something like ‘I’ll get back to you with my thoughts by the end of day’ (or some time that gives the person asking you a definite deadline. This makes you accountable but allows you to maintain a professional image with your response.

  • Start With the End in Mind

○   With this technique you state your answer to a situation, subsequently giving the reasons or rationale for your decision in as few as words as possible.

  • Throwing it Back to the Person or Persons after Expressing your Opinion

○   With this technique you simply state things by saying ‘Interesting, I had not thought of it that way, here is what I was thinking (now tell what you think)’ and then when you finish your thought, ‘Now that I have told you what I think, can you expand on your thoughts as they were interesting.’ This is a tactful technique to use when you do not agree with a person’s stance on an issue but want to save face for the person and share your thoughts.

  • Use the Feel, Felt, & Found technique

○   This technique is very good in a conflict or confrontational situation where you would simply state your association to the issue or person, for example, ‘I feel for you or I have felt the same, and found that when I looked at or did the following that things worked out for me.’  The technique focuses on establishing rapport with people by utilizing the simple concept of feel, felt, & found.

  • Use the Journalistic Six technique

○   Using this technique you answer 6 questions before giving your response, ‘who, what, when, where, why, & how.’

  • The ‘Tell a Story Technique

○   You tell a story by giving the opening, the body of the story, and then summarizing with a closing statement that includes your opening statement.

Body language techniques
  • Here is some general information to summarize why body language can be important as an effective tool in thinking on your feet.
  • Between 60-to-80% of our message is communicated through body language. Only 7-10% is attributable to the actual words of a conversation.
  • A client’s perception of you determines the type of service they feel they will receive.
  • When someone meets you they form an impression instantly, within the first 30 seconds.
  • People react to these impressions instinctively and make judgments and assessments based on what they see.
  • Important Factors in Watching and Managing your Non-Verbal Language

The use of eye contact is so important, conscious or otherwise.

○   Eye contact is fundamental to effective communication. When it is lacking, communication becomes uncomfortable and it is easy for people to get the wrong impression of what is happening.

○   Eye contact regulates the flow of communication, for example briefly holding a look for a few seconds indicates our awareness of what is being said.

○   Eye contact is a cultural-specific element of body language. In North America a lack of eye contact could mean shyness, deception, defensiveness or intimidation. In North America, 2-6 seconds is considered normal contact, although this is changing with cultural diversity, which may specify a norm of more or less depending on the culture.

○   The police often use eye movement as a means of initial lie detection. They will ask a series of questions to which they know a person will speak the truth in order to establish whether the person’s eyes move   consistently to the top right or to the top left when they are remembering. They will then use this information to guage whether the subject’s eyes move to the opposite direction when creating a potential lie. A certain percentage of the population move to the right and up to remember or tell the truth and to the left and up when creating or a formulating a lie. Still others move the in the opposite direction.

○   Eye movement to the bottom and to the left can indicate that someone is talking to himself or herself.

○   If we defocus and stare straight ahead, we are thought to be visualizing or thinking more deeply about the picture in our head.

○   Rolling one’s eyes can signal skepticism or distaste for what is being said or done.

Other elements of body language and the signals they can send are:

○   Crossing the arms over the chest is thought to signify a withdrawal or defensive posture.

○   Placing our hands on our hips can be seen as an aggressive gesture or as  a willingness to jump into action.

○   Foot tapping can indicate restlessness and impatience.

○    A person’s posture, even when sitting can show attitude.

○   Crossed legs may indicate disagreement and self-protection.

○   A brisk, confident walk with freely swinging arms may indicate a self-assured person who has passion and purpose.

○   Fingernail biting can indicate nervousness.

○   Your actual body posture with people when facing them is called ‘squaring up’ to the person you are speaking with. This demonstrates an attentive listening body posture.

○   Someone who is sweating could signal a nervous or tense response.

○   Our facial expressions, for example a smile, frown or a sigh signal open, aggression, or potential discontent.

○   A shrug of the shoulders will often signal discontent, aggression, or simply disagreement.

○   Rubbing the back of your neck can signal discomfort or disagreement.

○   Finger and arm gestures of any kind do signal agreement, an open stance, aggression or anger.

○   Pinching the bridge of one’s nose can signal positive contemplation to what has just been said to the person.


Tapping Into the Power of Your Words & Phrases.

The golden rules of conversation 

○   Listen attentively

○   Don’t interrupt, but when you do use smooth interruptions like…

○   ‘That’s interesting; now what about…’

○   ‘Let’s pause for a second…’

○   ‘May I interrupt for a moment?’

○   ‘That’s an important point; now…’

○   ‘I’m going to ask you to stop here & hold your comments…’

○   ‘I have enough information.’

○   ‘Something I want to add…’

■         Always avoid abrupt interruptions like.

  • ‘Now wait a minute…’
  • ‘Hold on a second…’
  • ‘I don’t buy this…’
  • ‘Stop. I can’t listen to this anymore.’
  • ‘Are you done?’
  • ‘Are you just about finished?’
  • ‘Let me tell you something…’
  • ‘Just a minute…’

○   Never talk down to others.

○   Treat everybody like a somebody.

○   Use praise instead of sarcasm or ridicule.

○   Avoid gossip and rumours.

○   Avoid putting yourself down in front of others.

○   Tap into the power of silence.

Role Play Activity

An exercise in actively using your abilities to read and use body language as a key part of thinking on your feet, this technique was taken straight out of the Airline Industry as a part of its training for customer focus excellence.

○   Part one is the recognition of tension in people. What are the three verbal and seven non-verbal things we see and do when tense? This is the first of three segments to the role play, the recognition of frustration and stress-related tension in people who are perhaps coming up in the airport ticket line.

○   The non-verbal signals

■         Frequent checking of time on a person’s watch or frequent checking of a person’s ticket.

■         Physically picking at one’s clothing.

■         A red face.

■         Sighing.

■         Pacing back and forth while in line or waiting.

■         A stiff body posture.

■         A frown.

■         Crossed arms

■         No facial expression or a tense pensive look to them.

■         Little direct eye contact initially.

○   The verbal signals

■         The use of derogatory words.

■         The actual tone of speech and pace of speaking.

■         Mumbling or talking to one’s self.

■         The person’s tone and pace of speaking goes higher and quicker.

○   Part two of the role-play is to recognize & predict potential aggressive actions out of the people who are showing tension but who are now moving aggressive state. What are the three verbal and seven non-verbal signs you see?

■         The non-verbal signals

■         A fast and deliberate walk.

■         Wide eyes with a frown, almost more of a look that shows only the whites of the eyes.

■         Rapid and frequent shifting in one’s seat.

■         Pointing of fingers or a fist gesture to others. Or even flipping you ‘the bird.’

■         Physically moving towards others.

■         Speaking with arm movements in a more exaggerated gesture across the body, often in a slashing gesture.

■         Sweating and red faced

○   The verbal signals

■         Cursing and at others versus an inward curse.

■         Complaining to others around the person.

■         Growing louder.

Part three of the role-play is to determine what can you do to proactively curb or stop the aggression before it becomes a serious issue. What are the three verbal and seven non-verbal things you should or should not do?

○   The non-verbal signals

■         Smile, but use it carefully and genuinely.

■         Do not finger point.

■         Watch your physical space and speak at their eye-to-eye level, for example kneeling to speak with the passenger and speaking face to face not of to the side or from behind their person.

■         Do not ignore the person.

■         Communicate information and process if possible through a higher authority, like the airline captain speaking over the intercom.

■         Simply listen but make it real, listen actively.

■         Be careful of your sighing and eye movement, do not roll your eyes.

○   The verbal signals

■         Be polite and firm. Use the person’s name if you can find out the name.

■         Acknowledge the issue and problem. This is not necessarily an apology but more of the willingness to admit that there is an issue and convey an understanding of the frustration.

■         Ask the person if you can be of any help.

■         Do not be condescending in any way and try not to hide behind policy.

■         Do not raise your voice.


Some Tips to Keep in Mind

○   Use active listening techniques.

○   Develop a ‘seek to understand before being understood’ mindset, ala Stephen Covey’s 3rd habit of highly effective people…seek to understand before being understood.

○   Keep a log of your activity specific to thinking on your feet. Even consider having the log include your observations around people you interact with who are both good and bad examples of success when being put in situations of thinking on their feet…what is it they do?

○   Manage your words. Take note of the words you use and try to use everyday, simple words when you are in a thinking-on-your-feet situation.  Stay away from acronyms.

○   Expand your reading to increase your exposure on topics, issues, current events, fiction and non-fiction.

○   Map out a 21-day action plan and keep it with you at all times.

○   Have a pen and paper with you when you watch TV. Take note of key issues. Watch people on TV and note how they deal with issues and topics. Now practice on your own or with others you know. Challenge yourself to come up with at least three thoughts per issue.

○   Seek feedback from people who know you and can offer their thoughts, reactions, and suggestions on how you could be better at thinking on your feet.

○   Manage your self-talk.

○   Regardless of the occasion your remarks or comments should have structure. The structure must have a beginning, middle, and an end to it.

○   Use familiar, everyday language

○   Avoid the use of the verbal crutch’s like…”um, ah, and you know.”

○   Learn to pause periodically to heighten the impact of your words.

○   Watch your automatic responses. Monitor your first response and challenge yourself to come up with a second thought.

○   Ask questions for clarification.

○   Prepare and practice

○   One way to practice is to map out in your mind what you would say to the following social discussion starters.  Practice using these and a selection of the techniques like the 3-question technique.

■         Best car

■         Best movie

■         Best Concert

■         Best sports event

■         Best vacation

■         Best or worst politician

○   Remember that this is a skill that you can develop and get better at. Experience, education, practice, reading, and getting constructive feedback all can help build the skill.

○   Tap into the power of silence.

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