Why can’t I be more quick-witted?

Just this morning I saw an article in a German newspaper around how to become more quick-witted. How teutonic, I thought, and, here we go again - I have been seeing this topic come up so many times befoe.

Why do I think that being quick-witted is so particularly important to German-speaking (or Teutonic) people? Well, when I searched for it in English, I landed on German native speakers selling their skills in English. But with all joking aside:
I have been asked this question quite a bit in my past as a facilitator - how can I become more quick-witted. And I cannot count the occasions when as a kid, I returned home from school and told my mum about something that happened. She always knew, what the right answer would have been, and we sometimes laughed at the witty things, she suggested. What had been painful to me in the moment turned into something funny. When it came to it, of course, I was never able to think of a good, spontaneous answer and would typically blame myself for not being wittier.

If you are interested in the Intercultural part here: I was saying Teutonic earlier, not German, because of Johan Galtung's essay on intellectual styles. He stays away from culture in a singular or defining culture by nation. Instead he looks at intellectual styles as they are formed in higher education (since intellectuals are thrilled by what other intellectuals do). He characterizes the Teutonic style with a great pyramid: One solid construct of thought that will encomprise everything that needs explanation. If you are shocked by the number of nouns that I just used, you are probably not close to the teutonic style. Using nouns instead of verbs is one of the characteristics of the teutonic style. 

If we come back to being witty again: As a kid, I felt that a truly witty answer would leave everyone else gasping for words. It would be the great pyramid, if you like, that leaves nothing unanswered. 

Ok, Alice, you may think, this may be teutonic, but still - why can't I be more quick witted? Let me ask you back: What does it mean to you to be witty and why do you want it? 

I have found, first of all, that a lot of people, who wanted to be more quick-witted were truly scared of being spontaneous. They were censoring themselves pretty scrutinously, trying to put their best self forward all the time. We all censor ourselves, because of social norms. Words related to death or sexuality are typically the ones we all try to keep to ourselves. But if we are overly conscious of ourselves - I think you already know what I am getting at. That is when you get into these conversations of fake smiles and too much nodding, where time never runs fast enough. So the first thing is to be OK with being not OK. If you feel like you need to fake a smile ask yourself why? And if you are OK with not faking a smile, you have made the first big step.

Secondly, as a kid, I found the situations calling for more wit typically pretty horrifying for my existance. Remember, as long as you find yourself in danger, your brain goes into the basic reactions of flight, fight or freeze. These are produced by the amygdala and your prefrontal cortex is blizzed out. What you can do against it is actively counting a few numbers, or reflecting on your triggers before or after a situation. Gaining a few miliseconds may be enough to get you out of pure reaction and into operation mode.

The third thing is that people, who think they are not witty, often underestimate themselves. Being spontaneous means that you voice the first thing that comes to your mind. How many times have I seen people make excuses, saying it was a stupid idea, just average, anyone would think of this - only to see them astonished at a training group laughing out loud, once they managed to voice this first thing, finally. The beautiful thing is that everyone of use has a unique build - be it DNA, upbringing or whatever experience. Once training participants managed to embrace this idea, the question of quick-wittedness moved towards the back. And the beautiful thing is that when it moves to the back, individual potential comes to the front. 

Sounds nice, but...? 
If this is too fluffy for you, you can try this brain exercise. It is called the Magic Shop and is used in Psychodrama. You can get whatever you want in this shop, but you need to trade something in that is of equal value. Finding something that is equally important to you as the thing you want is sometimes hard. It may be even harder to accept that you need to give it away. However, if you find it and you get to trading it in, it can operate like a key to unlock your potential.

Still not what you are looking for? Get to the contact page and let me know your thoughts. I will try my best to answer.

Psychological Safety or Competition?

This blog post about Psychological Safety and Improv really spoke to what I have experienced a lot with my theatre work. Looking back at times at university, I would even say that the full first year was just about getting ourselves settled with ourselves and with others. Don't hold me accountable for this number, the point I am trying to make is, that it is a lot of work to really get there.

For me, the big struggle was less to trust my fellow students in the moment, but it was the fact that there we were - 12 bright, talented students. Who of us would get one of the limited jobs after university? Today, I have a term for this - it is called a fixed mindset. Back than, I called it competition. Were we not meant to compete with each other?

I tried to appease myself, I tried to ignore this question. But it stuck there, and from the rivalries I saw flaring up during all these years, I assume, I was not the only one.

After university, I did not get a job at a fancy theatre. I was facing unconscious and conscious biases. I had short, brown hair and did not look, nor move, nor speak like someone, who just conquered Walhalla (German site for heros). It was brutal to go through this. Because I knew exactly, that it was not about me or my abilities. It was about pre-conceptions of others. I had to learn that theatre was not the place where all social norms were at disposition, but that it worked along those norms and re-inforced them as well. 

But, with this experience, I was able to let go of the rivalry, completely. Because I started being OK with not conquering Walhalla. I did not dye my hair to blond. Instead, I kept looking for people, who were not searching for the next conqueress. Or for someone to complement the conqueress. And I did find them. 

I have learned to embrace that every person is unique. There is a place for the conqueress and there is a place for me. Neither of us will always have the streets paved with gold or always find open arms with all ideas that we have. 

This led to the biggest win in psychological safety I could get. Safety within myself.


How do You Know, What to Choose?

Check out https://zrm.ch/ for more information on the Zurich Resource Model (ZRM) and some pictures in the online tool section. I value this model, because it suggests to identify a bigger goal that you can emotionally subscribe to, instead of going through decision-making as a cognitive task.
A friend of mine asked me recently, how to help a third person with a decision about a career change. In essence, the third person was unhappy about the last career move, he had made, which made him relocate but did not return, what he was hoping for. Now, he was thinking about relocating again, but did not know where to, or what company to look for.

A couple of things occured to me and I will switch away from the third person and talk about myself, to make things easier. First of all, I find it very important to identify a positive goal that attracts me, instead of just looking at the things that I do not want anymore. When I decided that I wanted to study acting, I went through many auditions and finally ended up in Berne, Switzerland. There were times, when I was not happy about living in Berne. I did not know anybody outside of university and the Performing Arts department is small (about 48 students for all 4 levels). But I always knew, why I was there, and this made me get through the tougher parts. 
Secondly, if a decision turned out to be disappointing, I find it important not to rush to the next one. I was working for a theatre in Eisleben, which was on the verge of being closed. My partner was working for one in Switzerland. As it goes in theatre, you don't really get weekends off, so we were not seeing each other for weeks. When the next job offer came up, I was examining the various voices. The one advocating to take the job, pleaded for money. I eventually turned it down, and had to live with the negative impact on my finances.
There is also something to say about timing. I find it sometimes difficult not to blame myself for being quicker with decisions, but I have learned to look closer, and understand the reasons for my hesitation. Again, it is tough to just persist, but the best change comes with time to my experience.
Thirdly, sometimes a change is more than you can manage. Relocating, new job, new relationships - all of this needs some confidence to master the situation. Being realistic about my personal situation and my emotional balance is probably the hardest part for me. I love streched assignments, as they push me into an unknown area of growth and make me see new capabilities that I did not think I had. But I have come to realize if I cannot trace any excitement in my emotions, it is not the right thing.

Long story short: Any decision with career or life will at some point put some pain points forward. I am enthusiastic person, so remembering what I was enthusiastic about, when I took the decision helps me get through adversities. Also, I have come to value the time that it takes me to arrive at a decision. If something asks me to rush and I don't feel ready - it is not my cup of tea.


My colleagues at work as well as former training participants have found the concept of status insightful to understand some interactions they were struggeling with. 

Status is used a lot in theatre. It may overlap with hierarchy, but it is not the same.
So what do I mean with status? It is a very volatile position of perceived power in a given situation. Typically, we differentiate between high status and low status. However, this differentiation may be misleading, as the high and low are never fixed, but always in relation to one another. Maybe it would be more accurate to talk of higher and lower status, but the convention runs differently.
In a high status, the person will typically use more space, speak longer, louder, or to the very extreme, is not afraid of pauses or staring others down. In a low status, the person will rather stay in the background, speak less, avoid eye-contact, may use a lot of fillers or make themselves physically smaller, by crossing legs, crossing arms, bending the head. I suppose you have some pictures in your head, as you read this. 
The benefit of the higher status is more power, the benefit of a lower status is more sympathy and shelter.

The tricky thing is that status gets negotiated non-verbally. This is why people may fight, while the argument is not at all about the subject they are talking about. Imagine two people, who each want to assume a higher status over the other. But it goes the other way around as well, which is typically less obvious. Two people may compete over the lower status. Think of an everyday dialogue in front of a door which goes like "You go first", "No, you go first". 

In theatre, status can be used to create tension. The audience tends to hold the breath, when hierarchy and status do not match, for example with the king, who behaves like a servant and the servant, who behaves like a king. At some point, this tension needs to be resolved, if you don't want your audience to get frustrated. The other element of tension with status, is when the status of a person switches. This means that the person in the high-status gets to be in the low status and vice versa. The example to the right highlights such a situation.

Recently, I have found some research on the topic, and I am glad that science is now onto this as well. One piece of research said, that status negotiation is not unique to human beings, but a lot of animals negotiate their status - who gets to eat first, who is the leader of the group etc. True.

Why do colleagues find this so helpful? Firstly it sheds light on some interactions they find difficult to understand. Secondly, as they become conscious of this dynamic, a space for cognitive decision opens up: Do I take part in this? Am I OK to leave this position to the other? If not, what can I do to assume my position? Some people said that being aware of this concept helped them to detach themselves from the expectation to react in a certain way. They started to look at it as a kind of game or dance and were able to vary their own behavior.
Status switch:

About a year ago, I was sitting at a bus stop. I was exhausted. For the last ten days, I had been taking my son to kindergarten to get him settled in. He did not take it particularly well and I found the level of noise at the kindergarten demanding. While I have always been appreciative of the work of nursery and primary teachers, after those days, I was bowing my head to them.
A man, a drunkard, walked up to me and asked for money. (Note on the status: him low status, me high status). I was so exhausted, I could not have given anything to to anybody, so I said no. The man looked me up and down and paused for a moment. I expected him to leave, but he did not. (note: this is the moment the status switched)
Then he said with some pride in his voice: "At least, I have managed to get drunk today". It was, as if he was sharing his key to success with me. (Note on the status: him high status, me low status). Of course, getting actually drunk, is not an easy task for an alcoholic.
He smiled at me and trailed off. And I felt better, too. Because I gave him something, I could not have given with money. I gave him the opportunity to feel good about himself.