In the workplace, it is sometimes more important to reply with an 80% correct answer within half a second of being asked, than replying with a 100% correct answer 5 seconds later. It's a peculiar phenomenon, one that is perhaps grounded more in social psychology than logic.
It's worth thinking a little bit about why someone (typically a superior) would behave in this manner. My thought is that an immediate response conveys confidence and control of the subject matter; it implies that we have a firm grasp on the situation, and that we are always conscious of its developments. After all, it does seem reasonable to connect our response time and our assumed attention level to the topic proportionally. There often really is a correlation there.
So if if it really is in our best interest to respond to a question right away, what do we need to do to? There are a few keys here.
One crucial habit is to predict what we'll be asked, and have prepared answers for each. One obvious point of preparation is meetings. Going over the key points of information in our heads, predicting the issues that will come up, and organizing the information and current status in our heads beforehand will aid us tremendously in being able to respond to a question immediately. In fact, preparation and consciousness of potential questions seems to be the best way to artificially improve our ability to cope with these inquiries.
I am a practitioner of what I preach. For each weekly meeting, I go over the most crucial topics of the week that we'll most likely cover, organize the information I have for each of them, and be on my toes mentally. The process only takes about ten or fifteen minutes, which comfortably fits into my commute.
Unfortunately, there is no way to get around the need to actually know our domain. However, I have personally had experiences where I understood the subject, yet have been unable to conjure up the responses in a sufficiently short timeframe. While proper possession of information is necessary, it doesn't seem to be a sufficient condition for handling these situations.
I guess we can rephrase this whole subject matter as how not to get caught off guard with a question. Reworded in this manner, it makes sense that our solution is to have the ability to prepare (knowledge) and to go through the mental motions for actually preparing ourselves for each occasion (bringing the knowledge to the surface level of our minds).
I am often surprised by how little people seem to have prepared mentally for a meeting; I see people with a strong grasp of their work stumble and fall when faced with a question -- for example, about the status and path to resolution for a known open issue. Just organizing the pertinent information and thinking through how we'll answer each likely question will go a long ways in preventing some headaches down the line.
Perhaps the same effect can be seen in other social situations as well.
Crossposted from my main blog