Life Skills – Quick! Think Fast!

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on June 1, 2009

Sometimes, a situation requires that you be able to ‘think fast.’   Yet more often than not, people say that they can never figure out what to say in time.  They also say that in retrospect, it’s incredibly obvious. How does that work?  How is that possible?

Many people think the ability to think fast has to do with ‘going with your gut,’ or relying on intuition.  I don’t think that’s necessarily so.   I do think there are at least two things you can start doing right now to increase your speed of thought.  The first is do-overs, and the second is asking yourself  good open-ended questions at every opportunity.

I’ve heard people give very complex advice for achieving the desired result of being able to think fast.   First, they say you should relax.  Then they tell you to analyze the situation.  Then they say not to say anything you might later regret. Hmm.  Seems like a lot to do INSTEAD of thinking fast. I think a better approach is to train your mind consistently to do a couple of things really well. 

A Do-Over is that second chance only available in the realm of the mind, in which you get to change history and relive something the way you wish it would have been.  Any time something happens in which your response gives you an unsatisfying experience, you can give yourself a do-over by revisiting the old experience in a new way.   I’ve written about this on the blog before.  The basic idea is identify the situation, identify what you did that you want to change, identify what you would do instead if you had another chance, and then give yourself that chance by mentally reviewing the experience in the new and resourceful way.  

The result is that the next time you’re in that now-familiar situation, you will have learned from your do-over what to do differently so you won’t need to do it over!  Of course the wise person continues to refine through do-overs even the most satisfying experiences.  Our nervous systems learn through repetition and intensity, so each time we return to the past to take another turn, we strengthen what we’re able to learn. 

Asking yourself a question about the situation isn’t quite so simple, because after all, situations are highly unique and a cookie cutter question is likely to miss more often than hit. And there are many possible questions to ask. Contrary to the common approach, which is to try and come up with the right answer right away, the trick is to come up with a good question first.  And a good question is the one that identifies something specific in the situation to respond to in a rapid way.  Suffice it to say that people who think fast think are actually thinking of an open ended question really fast.  That comes from practice. 

For example, the quick witted person forms the habit of asking, “What else could this mean?  The helpful person develops the habit of asking, “What would be helpful here?”  The person best able to take the lead asks, “What is most desirable outcome here?”  The person best able to take direction asks, “What is being asked of me here?”   In every case, asking the useful question frames the response.  

In that sudden situation, where something unexpected happens and you need to respond, you can ask about your best self: “What do I want from me right now?” or “What is needed from me right now?”  or best outcome,  “What is the best result that can happen here?” and “What would get the best result in this situation?”  

Because of my history of teaching conflict resolution and persuasion skills, some of my friends love to find ways to test my knowledge and ability.  If they’re patient, I can assure them that an opportunity will surely present itself.

I recall a birthday party thrown for me by friends in Durango when I turned 50 (gosh, just short of 10 years ago, my sense of time is certainly speeding up!)  My parents flew out to Colorado, my wife and daughter, a number of friends, and we were all seated around a long table.

The party was at the Cypress Cafe, an incredible restaurant owned by our friend Alison Dance. Alison really went all out.  We were served the most delicious wine, and it went straight to my head.  I was sitting in a crowded restaurant, at a table of 20 people who love me, my head was  in a haze of delicious delerium, and someone asked me to say something.  

I began, “Here I am, surrounded by my dearest friends and family, my wife to my left, my daughter to my right…”  and that’s as far as I got. My Mom, sitting across the table, let up a plaintive cry that riveted the attention of everyone in the restaurant.  “WHAT ABOUT ME???”  

This was one of those moments in my life where everything seemed to stop, my words and hers were suspended in the air.  It felt a little dangerous, like if I said the wrong thing, Mom’s feelings would be hurt and the party atmosphere would change.  I felt like my friends were looking at me to see what I’d say.  I could almost hear them thinking, “What’s Dr. Communication Skills going to do with this?”  

I just picked up where I left off, “…and my Mom and my Dad in front of me…I feel like I’m the most fortunate person in the world.”   As they say, ‘without missing a beat.’  Except the skipped beat of my heart.  And a good time was had by all.  

Think fast!  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Be well,



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