Think faster on your feet!

Quick-witted individuals have a huge advantage. The right remark rolling off your tongue won’t only let you protect your interests, but it will also allow you to better assert yourself as well as to deflect unfair attacks, defuse conflicts and avoid embarrassing situations. And when the comeback’s that good, then the laughs are also bound to be on your side. 

Everyone’s been there, that situation where you’re caught off guard by some kind of cheeky comment and want to say something back. Finding the right reply to clearly show the other person that you won’t put up with everything isn’t always easy – at least when it needs to be quick.

In order not to find yourself in this kind of situation again, two things (outside of practicing) are necessary: 

 (1) To know why you freeze up and what you can do against it, and

 (2) to purposely prepare for these kinds of situations.

The first step towards becoming wittier is developing an understanding why we react so helplessly in such a situation. A sudden attack can surprise us and make us potentially think “How dare they?" or “Why is he/she saying something?" On top of all this, it’s something our standard pattern of behavior isn’t capable of handling. You start to think what would be best for you to say in the situation, however, you’re simultaneously put under time pressure to fire back quickly with the right response. Stress sets in and is only exacerbated by the parties involved waiting to see how you’ll respond in the situation. The more we put ourselves under pressure, the greater the stress and the more we freeze up. In other words: You’re unable to think; you feel feeble and at the mercy of others. Only once you emerge from the situation, do you regain your confidence, with the right comeback coming to you on its own.

You can break free of such situations where you freeze up by adopting the habit of getting involved in such a situation every now and then, whether it’s in your professional or private life. It’s not just you who feels overwhelmed, others feel exactly the same way! 

So, as the communication trainer Barbara Berckhan would say, get yourself some “impact protection”, or in other words, put on a sort of protective shield that prevents you from getting hurt. You can imagine this protective shield, for example, as a bell made out of bulletproof glass. You can watch the entire situation, you can see and hear everything, but with impact protection, nothing can happen to you. Try imagining your protective shield as concretely as possible! 

In order to add strength to your protective shield, it’s useful to back this up with a matching remark: “That doesn’t affect me!”

Then, all there’s left to do is have the right reaction. The important thing here is for you to react immediately – reflexively so to speak. There’s no time for you to contemplate, otherwise the situation is done and over with. The best reply is worth nothing if it comes to you too late. For this reason, it’s important that you prepare. Yes, you read that correctly – you can train yourself to be more quick-witted. In the following, I will introduce a few techniques that are very effective in real life:

(1) Just reply with something: Before not saying anything, you should reply with something, even when it’s just a bunch of nonsense. You’ll gain confidence through the experience of not being a silent victim.


  • “I’m just going to simply ignore your comment.”
  • “I hope you’re not expecting me to respond.”
  • “If I have to say something in response, I’m going to end up with a headache.”

(2) Explain that you didn’t understand the speaker: This technique allows you to emphasize that the insults weren’t well received at all. A little bit of sarcasm is required to deliver the following statements convincingly. 


  • “Did you just say something?”
  • “Do I have to understand what you just said?”
  • “Explain it again in your own words!”

(3) Prepared comebacks: This technique is about preparing standard formulations which can be used in as many situations as possible. The advantage of these phrases is that they save you from having to contemplate for longer periods, thereby allowing you to avoid freezing up. Build a repertoire of around 10 to 15 retorts. You can find suggestions in books about “Cheeky remarks”, films and talk shows ...

upon making your selection, pay attention 

  • to keep your phrases short and succinct, 
  • to keep them general so that they fit to any situation, 
  • to ensure that they redirect an assault (“You’re my role model!”) or emphasize that you’re not willing to dispute (“Why don’t you consult my tax advisor.”).


  • “You should really go on TV with that act!”
  • “Can you do that backwards too?”
  • “Why don’t you ask my trustee, fitness trainer, gardener ...”
  • “And, no problems with anything else?" 
  • “Done rambling or have you started thinking yet?”

(4) Appropriate quotes: Sometimes a quote can be useful, that is, when it fits! At best, gather a collection of quotes from politicians, writers, soccer coaches, TV hosts, key economists, etc. 

Things become interesting if you quote a person who, with their quotes, somehow stands in contrast to your points of view. The advantage of quotes in comparison to “prepared comebacks” is that you yourself are not making the statement, but rather that you’re referring to another a person, as a figure of authority, so to speak. At the same time, you can distance yourself from the situation by suddenly quoting Woody Allen, Winston Churchill, Günther Jauch, Erich Kästner or Joachim Ringelnatz, while making a confident impression, when you don’t take it too far.


  • "You have to know the facts, before one can twist them." – Mark Twain
  • “Man is more ape than any ape.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
  • “Without order, nothing can exist. Without chaos, nothing can evolve.” – Albert Einstein
  • "If we do not win here, we will at least have demolished the grass.” – Rolf Rüssmann (former German soccer player)
  • “In life, as in football, you won't go far unless you know where the goalposts are.” – Arnold H. Glasow (former American comedian)
  • “Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.”– George Halas (former soccer player and coach)

(5) Shutdowns: You don’t always have to score wins with flashes of genius. In fact, the opposite, a boring statement, can often have similar effects. Whatever’s been said simply bounces off of you! Advantage of these shutdowns is that they never get old even when used often! In fact, shutdowns work better the more persistent you are in using them. Traditional shutdowns, many of which you still know from kindergarten, include:

  • “Nice for you!”
  • “It’s ok!”
  • “Nothing you can do!”
  • “You know you’re stuff!” or “You’re the expert?”
  • “You’re acting as if that was something bad!”
  • “I don’t have a problem with it!”


  • “Your suit doesn’t fit!” You don’t think my suit fits? “Nice for you!”
  • “You don’t even know what you’re talking about!” “Are you an expert in that field?”
  • “Your people are acting up!” “You’re acting as if it’s something bad.”
  • “You’re making a fool of yourself with this suggestion!” “I’ve got no problem with that.”

(6) Turn the tables

This tactic is used in the case of foul allegations. The purpose here is to deflect attacks, turn them around and target the attacker. You can proceed in two steps:

 (1) You must make plain that the allegation is not true. Don’t get upset, but also don’t treat the issue lightly either. This situation calls for a calm, matter-of-fact reaction. 

 (2) Direct the allegation back at the provoker.


  • “You’re one of those ladies’ man who turns his head at the sight of any skirt!” “No, I’m not that desperate, that is, in comparison to you!” Or
  • “The fact that you’re accusing me of shows just how you think.”

Depending on how hard, cheeky, aggressive or humorously you put up a fight, depends on the basic conditions. Trust your instinct what you can expect from your opponent in each case. Pay attention to the following factors in particular:

  • Relation of dependence: You should hold back in cases where you are dependent on a person.
  • Poignancy of the attack: You should not react as strongly in the case of a little harmless joking around, as you would in the case where you want to make a fool out of somebody.
  • Opponent’s humor: You should be more careful around people lacking a sense of humor.
  • Rival’s strength: You should take it easier on somebody who’s intellectually inferior and use your humor.
  • Audience: If the exchange of blows takes place in front of an audience, then think about what has greater importance to you: your relationship to your opponent or the feelings of the audience.

Ready wit should always be a means to re-establish your confidence as well as to strengthen it over the long run. Never should it be used to intimidate somebody or to back someone into a corner. People who use this skill to put themselves above others will eventually have to face the aversion of their surroundings. Cleverly used against “elbowers”, however, you can count on the support of your fellow human beings. 

On this note, here’s wishing you a “surefire counterattack”!