Being put on the spot can be painful for introverts, but there’s a good reason their brains respond the way they do.
There are few things I hate more than being put on the spot. Whether I’m being called on to share my thoughts in a dreaded, impromptu brainstorming session, or a family member has cornered me and asked me to commit to Thanksgiving plans (in the middle of June!), there is absolutely nothing worse than feeling pressured to answer right this second. I freeze up, my mind suddenly seems to go blank, and my mouth apparently loses the ability to form words as I stutter out a flustered response.
If you’ve ever fumbled your way through an awkward interaction like this one, only to be struck with the perfect thing to say later — in your office or in the shower, after you’ve had time to fully process the conversation and think on your own — you know what I’m talking about. It can feel like you’re short-circuiting, like your brain has temporarily shut off and needs to reboot itself.
These “brain glitches” can be incredibly frustrating, especially because I know they can make me come across as being slow, unprepared, or disengaged — when that’s not the case at all.
As it turns out, there’s science behind why we introverts can get so flustered in these situations, and why it’s so difficult for us to produce (and articulate) our thoughts on demand. Once you know why it happens, you can better prepare yourself to deal with these situations more effectively.
While I’m sure that no one loves being caught off-guard, it can be especially difficult for introverts to handle being put on the spot. (In fact, it’s one of the things we hate most). There are valid reasons for that — and it all has to do with the way our brains work. Here are some of the most common reasons introverts hate being put on the spot (and I doubt I’m alone in this!).
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5 Reasons Introverts Hate Being Put on the Spot
1. You need time to prepare your thoughts before speaking your case.
Extroverts process information externally, meaning they feed off interactions with others. This means they have a tendency to dive right into a conversation (even before they’ve fully processed what the other person has said). This is one reason extroverts are often better able to “keep up” and respond off-the-cuff when they’re put on the spot in a conversation.
Meanwhile, we introvert process information internally. This makes us excellent listeners — but it also means we need more time to process information, ideally alone, somewhere quiet, so we can craft a careful, thought-out response.
And it’s not like this is a conscious choice. This isn’t just our preferred way of thinking and communicating; it’s the way our brains work. In fact, Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, theorizes that information actually travels through our brains differently than it does for extroverts.
According to Laney’s theory, when extroverts process external stimuli, it travels a shorter distance through the brain’s “quick response” areas, where the five senses are processed. For introverts, Laney says, information takes a more roundabout path, traveling through more areas of the brain — including those responsible for things like empathy, self-reflection, speech planning, outcome evaluation, and long-term memory, to name a few. This means we tend to think more holistically and produce more nuanced responses, but those thoughts also take longer to produce.
In other words (no pun intended), we like (and need) to think before we speak — and when we’re put on the spot, we don’t have an opportunity to do that.
2. It’s hard to switch (conversation) gears.
To me, conversation has always felt like a multi-step process, and it’s often difficult to complete those steps concurrently. First, I have to listen to what is being said. Then, I have to process what is being said. After that, I have to process what I want to say in return. And then, finally, I have to actually articulate and speak those words. While extroverts seem to be able to fluidly perform all of these functions at once, that’s often not the case for us introverts.
This is, at least partly, because introverts like to turn ideas over in our heads, looking at them from all angles. When we’re lost in that kind of deep thought, it can be difficult to quickly switch gears, pulling ourselves out of it and responding to the conversation being had out here on the surface.
This is why, when I’m working — especially when I’m in a “flow” state — it sometimes takes me several minutes to register and respond to what someone else is saying to me. It’s also why job interviews are a nightmare, why I’m often quiet in work meetings as I consider the conversation going on around me, and why I rarely raised my hand in class discussions (since I was busy pondering the question being discussed).
3. It drains your mental energy.
It’s well-established that social interactions tend to drain introverts’ energy. One reason for this is introverts tend to be observant, which means we are taking in a lot of data during a conversation.
Not only are our brains busy processing what’s being said, but we’re also reading body language, deciphering facial expressions, and picking up on other stimuli in the environment around us. All of this extra information can be overstimulating — and sometimes distracting — since our introverted brains want to process it all.
So, by the time the conversation comes around to us and we are asked a pointed question, chances are good that our limited energy is already depleted — which just makes it more difficult to think (and speak) on our feet.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.
4. You need time to be as articulate as possible.
Even if an introvert does, by some miracle, come up with something to say on the spot, finding the right words to use in that moment can be a whole other battle — and the reason has to do with the way we store, process, and retrieve memories.
As Introvert, Dear founder Jenn Granneman explains in her book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, introverts tend to favor long-term memory over short-term (or working) memory. This long-term memory can be more difficult to access, requiring specific triggers to help us think of the information we’re trying to recall. This means that introverts might struggle with word retrieval because we have to dig through all of that long-term memory to find the specific words we’re searching for. If the right trigger doesn’t come to us in the moment, we might fumble over our speech.
Extroverts, by contrast, tend to favor short-term memory, which is why they’re able to keep the information they need readily available and are often better able to articulate their thoughts on the spot.
5. It causes anxiety, which only causes you to freeze up more.
Finally, on top of everything else, when all eyes turn to me to see how I’m going to respond in the moment, social anxiety starts to kick in, and I really freeze up.
Of course, not all introverts are socially anxious, but many of us do get nervous when we’re put on the spot like this. After all, we’ve been conditioned to equate confidence and success with gregariousness and ease — the ability to coolly think on your feet and smoothly articulate your thoughts with a wink and a smile. So who could blame an introvert for being a little self-conscious when all eyes are on her, expectant, waiting for her to produce a thoughtful, eloquent response on demand?
When we’re anxious, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol — which, of course, only compounds the issue by further interfering with our ability to focus, recall memories, and form coherent thoughts.
So, knowing that being put on the spot is essentially an introvert’s worst nightmare — and knowing that it will continue to happen anyway — what is one to do? Keep on reading to find out…
What to Do When You’re Put on the Spot
1. Be prepared and have some go-to responses ready.
It takes a little extra mental energy, but if you notice patterns where you’re regularly put on the spot, do your best to prepare in advance. For example, if you know your coworker asks about your weekend plans every Monday morning, and you don’t want to tell her you spent another Saturday night (happily) watching your guilty-pleasure show alone, have another answer ready instead.
Similarly, if you know you have an upcoming team meeting where you may be asked to contribute, try jotting down some ideas in advance — then make a point of throwing them out early in the conversation, before it has a chance to take a turn and the opportunity for you to participate passes.
You can also practice canned responses. Some conversations are impossible to prepare for, and you can’t always anticipate every possible thing someone else is going to say. In those cases, have a generic response ready. Practice saying, “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”
2. Take your time and say you’ll have to think about it.
Despite the pressure you might feel to respond in the moment, remind yourself that it’s okay to pause before speaking. Take a moment to breathe, and don’t let anyone rush you into answering them right away.
You can make it clear that you’re still engaged in the conversation and thinking about your answer by using facial expressions and body language, or even buying some time with a simple, “Hmm…” The person you’re talking to might get the hint and tell you to think about it and get back to them. But if not, and you can’t (or don’t want to) respond in the moment, it’s okay to let them know that you’ll think about it and follow up with them later.
As an added bonus, this gives you an opportunity to follow up after the fact with an email or text message — many introverts have an easier time with written communication.
3. Remember, it’s okay to change your mind.
For me, one of the worst things about being put on the spot is that I then feel beholden to honor whatever commitment I made in the moment, without being given a chance to think about it.
Whether it’s your boss asking you to take on additional work that you really don’t have time for, or a friend or family member pressuring you into social plans that you’re not feeling up to, it’s okay to change your mind — at least on occasion. You are perfectly within your rights to go back to someone and say, “Actually, after thinking about it, I realized I’m not going to be able to…”
When this happens, try not to feel too guilty. After all, this person is the one who put you on the spot in the first place, and chances are they’re not spending time feeling guilty about that!
Being put on the spot can be downright painful for introverts. But the next time it happens to you, remember that there’s a reason your brain and body respond the way they do. It’s normal, and nothing is wrong with you — it’s the price you pay to be the brilliant, observant, deep-thinking introvert you are.