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How to Think on Your Feet to Make Better Decisions & Respond Under Pressure

Do you freeze up when you’re under pressure?

Many people do. It’s a natural reaction to a stressful situation, whether you’re facing tough questions during an important presentation or you’re negotiating the price of a new car. You feel stress, your fight-or-flight response kicks in, and your mind goes blank.

Knowing how to think on your feet and perform under pressure is a skill that anyone can learn, and it’s worth your time to do so. It can help you perform better at work, become a better public speaker, improve your negotiating strategies, increase your sales, and gracefully handle tough questions during a job interview. In other words, knowing how to think clearly under pressure can help you advance your career and earn more money.

So how do you do it? Let’s take a look.

Benefits of Thinking Clearly Under Pressure

You’re walking into work when suddenly you see your boss, and your boss’s boss, coming toward you, signaling they want to talk. They’re both interested in hearing your ideas about advancing one of your company’s key territories, but they have some concerns about your strategy.

Suddenly, you find yourself in an impromptu job interview regarding the expansion. You’ve done your research on it, but you weren’t expecting to have to defend your ideas today. However, you know that if you can make a compelling case and answer their questions well, you’ll be first in line to lead the new territory. And a promotion like this could skyrocket your career and earning potential.

If this situation makes your palms sweat, you’re not alone. Many of us feel uncomfortable when we’re put on the spot or forced to answer questions we haven’t prepared for. Extroverts tend to immediately start talking and ramble on, organizing their thoughts as they go, while introverts often freeze up and then stammer out an answer. Neither of these responses will do much for your reputation.

There are many benefits of learning how to think clearly under pressure.

1. You’ll Be Less Stressed

First, you’ll feel less stress when you know how to think on your feet. When your boss corners you and demands to know why your numbers are so low, you’ll be able to formulate a clear, concise response without having a panic attack. You’ll look more professional and in control of the situation, which will impress your boss.

2. You’ll Build Credibility & Trust

Thinking on your feet will strengthen your reputation and build credibility. You’ll appear more confident, informed, and self-assured, which can help you climb the corporate ladder, ask for (and get) the salary you want, impress your clients, strengthen your public speaking, negotiate effectively, and much more.

Staying cool under pressure can also help you build trust with your team. When they see that you’re calm in tense situations, you’ll earn their respect.

3. You’ll Make Better Decisions

When you have to make a decision, you rely on the part of your brain called the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for problem-solving and logical thinking. In ordinary circumstances, your cerebral cortex kicks in every time you have to make a decision, allowing you to weigh all relevant factors and come to a sound conclusion.

However, when you’re put on the spot, you often feel threatened, and the stress and fear cause your limbic system to kick in. Your limbic system is an ancient part of your brain that regulates emotion and is responsible for assessing danger; it’s where your fight-or-flight response originates. When you feel threatened, your limbic system can hijack the rest of your brain, making it difficult – if not impossible – to make a good decision.

Fortunately, you can learn to override this automatic response and make sound decisions in tough situations.

How to Think On Your Feet

All eyes are on you. Your palms are sweating, your breath is shallow, and you have no idea what to say. What do you do?

1. Pause

When we’re put on the spot, we often start talking immediately, without any idea of what we want or need to say. This can cause you to say something you didn’t intend or give a response that’s unclear or doesn’t fully answer the question.

When you’ve been asked an unexpected question, don’t jump in and start talking just because you’re nervous. Take a deep breath and give yourself a second or two to process the question. You can also say something like, “Wow, that’s a great question. Let me think a minute.” Don’t shy away from a pause; it will make you appear more thoughtful.

You can buy a few more seconds by slowly repeating the question. This has a few benefits. It gives you time to organize your thoughts, it helps you make sure you understood what the person asked, and it shows them that you’re actively listening.

When you do start speaking, go slowly. Stress often makes us talk faster than we usually do, which gives our brains less time to respond and process what we’re saying. Take measured, even breaths while you speak to help yourself slow down.

Pause Coffee Cup Latte Hands Table

2. Respond in Outline Form

When you’re faced with a question that requires a broad answer, it’s tempting just to start talking and let your answer take shape as the words leave your mouth. Again, pausing here is crucial to getting yourself organized. But you also need to focus your response so you don’t ramble on endlessly.

During your pause, figure out what your main points need to be; there should be no more than three. Also, come up with supporting evidence for each point. When you start to answer, outline what you’re about to say. For example, imagine your boss wants to know why your company should risk expanding its current territory. You could structure your answer like this:

“You’re asking why our company should risk developing a new territory. Well, there are two primary reasons: additional revenue and a new customer base. According to my market research, this new territory would increase revenue by 20% the first year. And demographics show that it would expose our company to a new base we haven’t encountered before.”

In this response, you repeated the question, then briefly outlined what you were about to say. When you made your points, you were concise and backed up your reasons with research. Structuring your answers like an outline can help you think clearly because it gives you a framework to rely on while you organize your thoughts.

3. Reframe What’s Happening

It feels very uncomfortable to be put on the spot. When it happens, you might have thoughts like, “Ugh, I hate this. I feel afraid. I want out of this situation right now.” These negative thoughts reinforce what your limbic system is trying to tell you: that feeling this pressure isn’t good and you need to get out immediately.

When our cavemen ancestors were being chased by bears, this was a useful response. However, when we’re in a meeting and our reputation depends on our performance, it’s not very helpful. Reframing how you feel about this pressure and tension puts your limbic system in the backseat so you can think clearly.

Instead of being afraid of the pressure and tension and avoiding it, accept that it’s normal. Tell yourself that you love pressure and how it makes you feel. Embracing the pressure and tension you feel reframes the situation in your brain. Thinking the words “I love this!” can help override your limbic system’s automatic response and make the situation less threatening so that your cerebral cortex can stay in control.

Reframing a tense situation takes practice. Your body has to learn to accept discomfort, and you have to get used to telling yourself, “This is great. I’m OK with this,” even when you don’t feel that way.  Whenever you’re in a tense situation, whether you’re in an argument with your spouse or defending your ideas to an antagonistic colleague, mentally say, “I love this pressure. I feel great.” It might sound silly, especially at first, but saying the words will help train your brain to feel and respond differently.

4. Adjust Your Body Language

You’re giving a presentation to your team and some higher-ups at work when, suddenly, one of your colleagues asks a tough question. You unconsciously take a step back, cross your arms, and look down at the floor, trying desperately to organize your thoughts. It’s a tough situation, and your body language is screaming that you’re nervous and on the defense.

Learning to be aware of your body language, and how to control it when you’re under pressure, can help you stay cool and think clearly. Your posture and gestures can directly affect your mind’s ability to think coherently. If you allow your body to shrink back and put up barriers, you’ll experience more fear and nervousness, making it less likely you’ll come up with a solid response.

Specific body language poses can help reduce your stress and anxiety, and boost your confidence and mood, before high-stress situations such as public speaking or job interviews. Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, gave a TED Talk on the power of body language that has over 51 million views. According to her research, certain “power poses” can increase the hormone testosterone in your body, giving you greater confidence, increased comfort with risk, and increased feelings of power. These poses also lower your levels of cortisol, one of the hormones that make you feel stress.

A power pose is anything that opens up your body to the other person, enables you to take up more space, or both. The power of these poses is a throwback from our hunter-gatherer days when exposing our torso was a sign of trust and lack of fear. All our vital organs are in our torso, so exposing them essentially meant, “I’m not afraid you’re going to kill me.” That might sound absurd in our civilized society, but our instincts are still powerful, and the message still works.

Power poses include standing straight with your hands on your hips, leaning back in your chair with your arms behind your head, and standing or sitting in ways that keep your torso exposed and your limbs out of the way.

Using body language to your advantage takes some practice and self-awareness. Practice these tips while you’re at work to make them feel more natural:

  • Lean Forward. When you lean toward someone who’s speaking, it expresses interest and confidence on your part. It can be an especially powerful gesture during difficult conversations because it shows you’re listening and open to what the other person is saying.
  • Stand Up Straight. Good posture has immediate effects on your confidence and energy levels. When you have good posture, you appear confident and self-assured. It also opens up your chest so that you can take deeper breaths – which, in turn, allows your organs to function properly and helps you focus.
  • Don’t Fidget. Fidgeting and self-grooming behaviors, such as touching your face or hair, betray nervousness and fear. Practice being still when you’re in meetings or talking with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable.
Man Posture Hands Suit Body Language

5. Avoid “What Ifs”

You’re sitting down for an important job interview. A lot is on the line; not only is this the job of your dreams, but you just bought a new home and really need a bigger salary.

As you’re waiting for the recruiter to come in, the “what if” thoughts start up: What if I bomb this interview? What if I get asked a question that I don’t know the answer to? What if my boss doesn’t give me a good recommendation? What if, what if, what if …

The problem with “what if?” questions is that they quickly spiral out of control, leading you down a rabbit hole of negativity and uncertainty that can drastically diminish your ability to think clearly under pressure. You also waste time and energy imagining scenarios that might not even happen, instead of focusing on thoughts that will build your confidence. These questions can even trick your brain into feeling like they’re real and cause feelings of panic.

When you’re in a tough situation, ignore “what if” thoughts when they arise. Focus instead on what’s actually happening, because that’s what’s real.

6. If You Don’t Know Something, Admit It

If you truly don’t know the answer to a question, don’t waffle or beat around the bush; admit that you don’t know.

People value honesty, and you’ll gain their respect by being direct. So admit when you don’t know something, and then promise that you’ll research the issue and get back to them. Most importantly, keep your word on this; try to follow up within 24 hours.

Final Word

Knowing how to perform under pressure is a skill that anyone can learn and everyone can benefit from. It can help advance your career and lead to key leadership roles. It can help you earn more money, negotiate effectively, strengthen your reputation, and experience less stress in pressure situations.

However, these techniques take some practice. Choose one or two and start using them whenever you’re put on the spot. Once those become automatic behaviors, choose another technique to work on. Over time, you’ll build an arsenal of thinking and behavior strategies that will help you stay calm in tense situations.

What tips do you have to keep cool and think on your feet?

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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