Better Ways to Communicate with External Thinkers and Internal Thinkers

I'm thinking out loud. That's why you can hear me.

THINKERSNinety percent of the stress that occurs when my wife and I have a conversation is about our thinking styles rather than about any disagreement. These numbers may be way off since I haven’t done a formal study but I know that we can have a more enjoyable and effective conversation if we consider what is going on in each other’s brain as we try to communicate.

This isn’t just true about marriage. This is true whenever you are having a conversation. Coaches need to pay particular attention to this truth because conversations are our life blood. You may have a boss who never really listens or who never comes to any conclusion. If you understand how they think, you might be able to help them communicate more effectively.

Internal thinkers process almost everything inside their own head.  They have their own private conversation and work out all the details before they speak.  This often makes them very slow to respond.

External thinkers talk through their thinking.  They process as they hear themselves say it. Surprisingly, they may not even agree with what comes out of their mouth. They are just trying on the words to see how they fit.

See if you can determine how you process based on these descriptions.

Internal Processors

  • They choose every word purposefully and carefully.
  • They may need to have their thinking expanded with larger perspectives and possibilities.
  • Their thinking may be a bit narrow and rigid.
  • They don’t like to speak until they’ve thought through the entire issue.
  • When they speak their conclusion, it will sound like a final decision.
  • An internal thinker has to have some silent time to process during the conversation in order to come to their own conclusion. Otherwise, they can’t enter into an actionable agreement. They may need to sleep on it.
  • An internal thinker will make observations that seem fairly obvious. This can appear like the internal thinker believes others aren’t as observant.
  • It is important for internal thinkers to make statements out loud if they are going to take any action. But once they say it, they will probably do it without much accountability.
  • Internal processors must feel safe to talk about anything important.
  • Internal processors may be talkative in social situations, but their style is best judged in a conversation that needs to result in an action.

External Processors

  • They say whatever they are thinking and may not even agree with every word they say.
  • External thinkers share their thoughts with anyone who will listen. They do not require as much safety, but safety is still important.
  • They may have too broad a scope to their thinking.  Others will have to help them focus.
  • Coaches need to be careful not to be overrun by external thinkers.  Sometimes you have to interrupt external thinkers, though be careful of making this a habit.
  • External processors don’t choose words with great care. They may not be using a word the same way you interpret it.
  • External processors also need some silent time to process but not as much.
  • External processors need to be heavily challenged on their commitment to an action step because the words come out too easily. Spend ample time building accountability.
  • External processors probably haven’t looked at all the details.
  • You don’t have to be an extrovert to be an external processor. I’m not an extrovert.

Question from a Reader:

I am an external thinker. The problem with that is I ramble and others find it difficult to understand me. My question is: How do I become someone who speaks concisely and makes perfect sense to others?

In my own life, I have learned to often announce, “I’m just thinking.” This gives the listener a context for what I’m saying. My wife doesn’t have to start processing all the details involved with my big idea, which is her normal mode. She can press the pause and just listen as ideas flash one after another.

Similarly I also often say, “I’m just thinking out loud. That’s why you can hear me.” It is a funny way to announce this idea may not stick but it may spur someone else to a new thought, or they can build on this thought.

As an external thinker, you might sum up your thoughts with another announcement, “OK. Here’s where I’m landing.” “Here’s my conclusion.” This lets internal processors begin to consider your final statement without all the fluctuation that preceded it.

As an external thinker, I wish internal thinkers would give me some context clues about where they are in their thinking. My aha is that internal thinkers wish the same of me. Give people a few context tags within your external thinking so they can see where you are and that your rambling may not be as unorganized as they think. Don’t overdo it. Just give a little context.

Question from a Reader:

Excellent article! I’m definitely an internal processor while my hubby processes externally through talking. We’re trying to find the balance so that he doesn’t feel shutdown when I have to take the time to process and when he talks out his thoughts. How can I process without rehashing what he’s already talked out and resolved? Are there any tips for how internal/external processors can best communicate effectively?

This makes me laugh because my wife and I are exactly the same! Tips? He will have to learn to give you time to process. Depending on how external he is, this can be difficult. I might also suggest that you don’t assume that the discussion has to come to a conclusion at that time. The conversation can and should continue tomorrow. That will give you time to think.

As for you, I’d suggest you learn to give him some clues that you are processing. You might share with him what area you are processing without giving him the specifics. This way he doesn’t feel completely blind.

What are some other problems that come from interacting with someone who has a different thinking style than you?