I can't think straight when I'm not alone!
April 23, 2010 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I can't think and problem-solve when talking to people. Any advice?

When I'm alone at my desk, things click and I can get good work done. I'm confident, knowledgeable, and thorough.

As soon as someone comes in to ask me a question, or I go to a meeting, panic sets in and everything becomes much harder and slower to process. Sometimes I have trouble remembering the most basic concepts, and I fumble around like the absent-minded professor. As soon as I'm alone again, the fog lifts, and ideas and solutions come flooding back to me! It's extremely frustrating.

I already see a psychiatrist on a regular basis, and take Effexor XR for general anxiety disorder (GAD). Above and beyond that, I was wondering if the hive mind had any advice. E.g. should I focus on relaxing? Should I try to tune them out? Should I mentally pretend I'm alone in my office? What has worked for you?
posted by blahtsk to Human Relations (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
How old are you and how often have you done these meetings? I ask because experience and repetition is a big portion of not being nervous on work situations. I used to be very nervous because as a business analyst I often have to do presentations to 30-50 people at a time. The experience was very nerve-wracking as a 22-24 year old....but now that I am 26 it is second nature mostly due to repetition.

Thanks in advance,

posted by The1andonly at 10:44 AM on April 23, 2010

Are you a girl/woman? I only ask because there seems to be a dichotomy between how females approach other peoples' problems and how men do.

Assuming you're female, I would say take some time to prepare yourself for what sounds like a heavily male environment. They want answers, or at least pointers to answers. Anticipate their questions and arm yourself accordingly.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:52 AM on April 23, 2010

If these questions are related to things you are supposed to provide as part of your job, practice this phrase:

Let me check on that and get back to you.

Then, take a few notes to make sure you understand exactly what they are asking, and then do actually check on it and get back to them.
posted by CathyG at 10:52 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen to this. It's rather informative about the way people have different capabilities when experiencing stressful (like face to face) situations, and how progress can be made by enduring and overcoming the stress.
posted by nicolin at 10:54 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

My only suggestion isn't helpful for spur of the moment questions, but for the meetings ask for a copy of the agenda before hand or If you are doing a presentation, make notes. I usually will put a series of sentences on a piece of paper, group them by topics. Then I associate the sentences with a complete line of thought (so I'm not writing down entire essays, but I am thinking through each subject). Then mid-presentation/meeting someone will ask about transportation, I'll go to the bottom-right of my sheet where I've written Transportation and underneath maybe Cars/Trains/Planes. I'll underline cars, find that my brain focuses on it, speak about the topic (as rehearsed earlier), X it out. Then I underline trains and repeat.

Greg Nog mentions breaking eye contact, which I'd also suggest and the notes are a great way to do it (instead of my previous fall back, staring at my feet). Plus during review my boss says "I like how you always come prepared with notes".
posted by syntheticfaith at 10:58 AM on April 23, 2010

Sometimes trying to "keep it together" causes even more anxiety. If you let the other person know you're having trouble, it takes pressure off of you. You can say "Ha, I haven't had my coffee yet" or "Sorry, I'm a little scattered today." That also gives you a few more moments to process their question.
posted by desjardins at 11:03 AM on April 23, 2010

Another vote for "let me get back to you", when that's an option. I say this all the time; in my case, it's because I'm bad at remembering things and don't like giving bad information off the cuff.

As a bonus, if you do this consistently, you can sort of "train" people that this is how you work best -- I've worked in the same place for almost four years now, and people have come to expect that I'll email them right after a meeting with answers to questions that came up during, and most often, they'll drop me an email (which I'll usually respond to within a few minutes) rather than come into my office to ask things.
posted by emumimic at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2010

i have the same problem. this is why i always suggest that i send people an email rather than discuss important things face to face. that is how i answer questions, get my point across, deliver my expertise....by writing. otherwise, i am useless in a meeting, especially if someone throws me a curveball. i have a slow face to face processor. i do not take anxiety meds but i did once or twice consider that i had some kind of social anxiety disorder. but now that i'm older, i've kind of grown out of that, but i still need to be by myself, or in a low pressure environment, and have the time to express myself in type. i don't know, that's how i had to arrange my life. it is what it is. so, what emumimic says about "training" people that this is how you work best, YES. if this is how you are, don't stress yourself out by trying to fit yourself in where you are really not your best. it's okay to say that even. hope this helps.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 11:39 AM on April 23, 2010

Sometimes asking a clarification question so that the other person needs to do a little explaing first jumps my memory and transports me back into the dialogue.

Example: Professor Weatherballon, why do low pressure systems cause thunderstorms?

you: What do you alreayd know about low pressure systems? I can get into more detail to help explain the thunderstorm phenominon.

I know low pressure systems x,y,x......

Also before going to meetings, you may want to schedule 20 minutes or so in your day to visualize the meeting and think about possible questions adn topics that may come up. Take notes durring this session if you're a notes person.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:45 AM on April 23, 2010

i just wanted to add that i have recently had a series of important meetings and i prepared questions on paper beforehand with shorthand responses and i indicated that i could expand on them in a document. sometimes, when i am thrown for a loop about a really obvious question/answer, i answer the best way i can but say as much, that i am answering the best way i can and can clarify. or if the answer comes to me at a different point in the meeting, i find an opening to go back to that. at least i am getting my point across, that's how i see it. somehow, in some way, i will get my point across!!! :)
posted by lakersfan1222 at 12:19 PM on April 23, 2010

There are a couple of things that you could try which might improve your in-person experience.

I've broken the steps down into three stages: things to do before you present, things to do during the presentation/meeting, and things to do afterwards.

It seems akward (and perhaps a bit mechanical) however, committing things to paper and thinking through things in advance enables you to reduce your cognitive allowing you to participate more confidently while in-meeting.

Before the meeting, sit down with some paper and write down a couple of things:

- If you know the goal of the meeting, write that down

Also consider one or two personal goals. Think about one or two things you'd like to accomplish in the meeting: participate fully in the dialog, ask a question, feel confident in your delivery, etc.

- Write down your role in the meeting and what you think that means

Reflect upon what your role in the meeting / presentation will be. Are you there to speak, listen or solve problems with others? Are you supporting someone else?

- Consider what you'd like to convey in the meeting and write those things down (talking points)

Look for logical groupings and consolidate untill you have three or four points that you can drill into. In essence, you're outlining your thoughts in the same way you might outline prior to writing a paper. Prioritise your comments and identify the main points you think need to be made.

- Who is going to be in the meeting
Try and think through what issues, objections and questions might come up and who would ask them. Try and work through how you would respond to those objections -- write down some key responses. It's been my experience that people generally bring up the same issues over and over and over again. Depending on the seriousness of the meeting, you may also wish to discuss the meeting with other supportive peers prior to the meeting so you can rope in backup.

... so now that you have your list of main goals, talking points and a quick-and-dirty diagnosis of what may lay in store from the other participants, you're ready for the meeting.

While you're in the meeting you can use the notes you prepared in the meeting as a memory guide, and a means of managing the information.

- Your talking points
If you get flustered, or forget what it is you wanted to say -- look down at your talking points and use what you wrote to jog your memory.

- Managing questions
Since you've thought through potential issues, questions, and objections -- you should have a better handle on what to say when someone poses a question to you.

If you don't know the answer it is acceptable to say you don't know and that you'll get back to them. The reason that you wrote down everyone's name was to provide space for you to jot down any questions they had. First, so you'll have a record that you can use to prepare for your next meetings, but second so you'll have an aid to prepare your response.

Now if someone asks you quesiton that's not relevant to your meeting. Here is where you use what you took down for the meeting goals, and apply the "off line comment." For example, "Bob, that's a great question -- but we're all here to talk about issues around the the xyz account, and I take that up with you off line?" Again, use your note to keep track all of the off the wall questions as well.

Now that you've survived the meeting, it's time for a bit of analysis. After the meeting look at your notes from the meeting.

- Did you meet your goals?
For the talking points ... did you get a chance to convey all your key talking points? If not what specifically inhibitted you from conveying that infomation.

For your personal goals? Did you accomplish any of those goals? If not, where there any specific behaviours that inihibited you from accomplishing those goals?

- Review your question list
Use the list of questions / comments you received to follow-up with the indivudals from the meeting. Also, examine what they commented on and what their questions where. Given those questions ... what do you think their key issue is?

The goal of analyzing the quesitons is to gain better insight into what the other individuals you work with might care about.

- Finally think about how you think you did try and write down what types of things you should keep doing, what you should stop and what you should change. If you have a co-worker that you trust, you may also ask them for advice or comments on how they thought you did (although be prepared for "uh, you did fine" kind of analysis).

So now that you've gone through this exercise once ... be prepared to continue to go through this exercise again, and again. Use previous documents as a guide on how to prepapre for the next meeting. Look to see what behaviours ought to stop and list those as personal goals on your next meeting.

Yes, this will take a while -- and yes this will be a pain in the butt; but after a couple of rounds the time you take to prepare for meeting (and the time you take to follow up) will come down.

The upside is that not only will you improve your effectiveness, reduce your nervousness in these in-person type of situtations, but you'll also be much more effective at work.

Good luck!
posted by cheez-it at 12:58 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've had the exact same problem, and I'm working on it. I'm a business analyst - my job is answering questions. I've been lucky in that my boss and coworkers all recognize that I do this - that I might not be the best on my feet, but that the work I do is thorough and correct and speedy.

I think CathyG has it with "Let me check on that and get back to you." No one will ever scream at you, "No, I need an answer now, and I won't let you do the research you need to do in order to give me an accurate answer." That would be ridiculous. So, you say that, you ask a few questions (and I have a list, written out, of questions that will usually get me the information I need, no matter what situation. Having them written out is important - I know that I'll fumble it otherwise.)

I also repeat what people said back to them, to make sure I've got it straight and to give me a little time to get my head on.

I'm not sure if it's possible for you, but try to get people to communicate through email. I've had some success with this, and it's easier.

What's the nature of your job?
posted by punchtothehead at 1:51 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great feedback... to answer some questions: I'm male, 32, and work as a sr. software developer.

The dialogues I have trouble with are the spur-of-the-moment ones. Like, "Hey Blahtsk - you're the expert on X. How does X work?"

If you send that question to me in email, you'll get a cohesive and complete answer. If it comes up during a meeting, suddenly I have trouble remembering what X even is. It's largely independent of the level of familiarity I have with the other person(s). This happens with co-workers I work with daily, etc.

You guys have given me some great tips, though; thanks so much, and keep 'em coming. It's also really good to know I'm not the only one!
posted by blahtsk at 5:08 PM on April 23, 2010

"I need some time to organize my thoughts before I can answer that -- I'll shoot you an email about it later today."
posted by Jacqueline at 7:04 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Excuse the length but I hope it helps.

"The dialogues I have trouble with are the spur-of-the-moment ones. Like, "Hey Blahtsk - you're the expert on X. How does X work?"

You seem to be trying to do too much if you are attempting to answer that question completely in a verbal manner. Not to mention, you are really used to doing written answers which enhance your thought process (which you enjoy_ and it's a matter of getting used to verbal communication all over again.

If the person is interested in a detailed answer and comes into your office and sits down across from you and wants the question answered, then you need to ask what part of "x" are you referring to? Sub-process 1, sub-process 2? or the core working where you want the logic of the system going from sub-process 1 to sub-process 2?
In that case you try your best to answer but you inform them that you are going to go all over the place because it's not that easy when doing it verbally.
Tell them, hence, it would be better to email if they don't follow your verbal expressions. Then, feel free to answer the query "not well enough" at all.

The response always depends on what the asker wants, not on how much you want to give.
Hence, clarifying questions on what the narrowest of the answer they want verbally, always helps. Try an eye-wash answer...it won't keep you popular but it will help people email you instead.

This is something I have struggled with too. Try and watch their body language if you start rambling or if your answer is too short and they seem to portray a "you didn't give me enough look".

Also remember, in companies that are public, all email conversations have to be saved for about 7 years so they don't want anything written, hence the verbal preference. The idea is to get the people comfortable when they come to you paradoxically that will entail more pressure on your part for verbal based responses.

Maybe think of your job as a more people job before a computer/coding job?
posted by iNfo.Pump at 9:35 PM on April 23, 2010

I periodically need to take 10-15 seconds to silently think about things in the middle of conversations and it used to weird people out a bit. Then a friend suggested that I tell people, "Give me a few seconds to think this through" and it worked like a charm. If I haven't come up with a solution by the end of that time or organized my thoughts sufficiently, I'll follow the above advice and say "I'm going to think about this and get back to you later". Also seems to work fine.
posted by nangua at 1:35 AM on April 24, 2010

Is it a little easier when you're not looking at people while you're thinking?

I was wondering about the same thing -- not being able to think in public. The thing is that it takes a ton of mental energy to process faces, and this might be responsible for the reduction in the rest of your thinking power. Here's an article from the BBC about related research.

I imagine the extent to which unconscious processing of faces interferes with the rest of one's thinking varies for individuals, so it has a greater effect on some people than on others.

Also, perhaps this phenomenon is responsible for sort of jumpstarting anxiety about not being able to think, once you realize you can't, which then makes it even harder to think...

So, I'm nthing the idea that even though we've all been told to make eye contact with people during whatever interactions, it's really not the best idea when you need to think through something that requires some mental energy, or when anxiety makes answering simple questions take more mental energy than normal. Just giving an occasional glance between thoughts, or acting normally eye-contact-wise once you've answered the question is fine. Or maybe, as others have suggested, use a piece or paper or whiteboard so you can look at those instead.

If someone comes into your office and asks you to explain something, try pausing for a moment first. Then, by all means, look upwards at nothing in particular while you begin thinking/talking through the answer. (Hand on your chin optional.) If you actually look for this behavior, you'll find that people do this pretty often.

Also, yes, try to tune out the other person/people, and get lost in your thinking while you're answering. Take a second, look away, and mentally ask yourself the question as though you were alone. They'll essentially disappear once you're comfortably in your own mind, not focusing on them (uh, focusing in both senses).

Another thing you can try is recruiting someone you're really comfortable with in order to do some experimentation and possibly desensitization. Have them toss questions at you, and see what happens when you try different strategies while attempting to answer/think. See what happens when you try to look them in the eye the whole time, vs when you're looking away, or away and up, etc. See what works best for you. And you can even practice making more and more eye contact with them while answering questions.

(I imagine the above would still help a bit even your difficulty is more about the people's presence than eye contact.)

Also, even you're asked about something you're expected to be an expert on and should know without thinking, you could try saying something like, "let me think of the best way to explain this; you guys continue what you were talking about." Then the pressure will be off of you, and you'll probably find that the knowledge comes rushing back, and you can interject with the answer a few minutes (or seconds) later. (BTW, just because you're an expert on X doesn't mean you're supposed to be an expert on teaching X, especially caught off guard, so the "let me think..." won't seem strange.)
posted by sentient at 2:54 PM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like you, I feel much more confident in writing than I do in face-to-face encounters. I'm also more visual than verbal. I'm better at processing my thoughts alone, and am familiar with the deer-in-headlights feeling that comes when the room turns to you for a spontaneous answer to a question or challenges you to think aloud on your feet. I agree with other posters here that it gets better with practice. For me, I think the feeling of blanking out is linked to confidence issues, and in my panic, my brain shorts out. About 7 years ago I joined a local Toastmasters group to work on getting more comfortable talking in front of groups and making presentations. The weekly practice in a supportive environment helped me get over the feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy I often felt in projecting myself. It also helped me learn how to structure my thoughts better on the fly. I'm still occasionally caught off guard (particularly on the phone or during teleconferences), but I started working in an environment where I have to perform verbally to groups all the time, and I'd say that it's not really an issue for me anymore.
posted by amusebuche at 3:16 PM on April 24, 2010

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