Internal vs. External Processing: What is Your Thinking Style?




  • — June 10, 2019

    Understanding our thinking style to be more effective communicators and leaders

    Have you ever had a boss who talks so much and shares so many ideas that you never seem to know what to act on? Or have you been in an organization that requires an agenda and reading material sent out 24 hours before every meeting rather than creating opportunities for impromptu brainstorming?

    Over the summer, we will be exploring how difference in thinking and processing styles can contribute to poor team communication, ineffective or unproductive meetings, or misunderstandings between leaders and team members. This month we are starting by asking you to understand your own preferences. Think back to the two scenarios presented above. It’s likely that you find one of these scenarios more frustrating than the other, and which one largely depends on your thinking style.

    Some of us are External Processors while others are Internal Processors and we have likely been this way for most of our lives. Just ask any elementary school teacher, and they will tell you that some kids need to talk an idea or a concept through before they understand it while others quietly take in the information. As a leader, parent, or team member you have likely noticed this phenomenon as well.

    Different Ways to Process the Same Information

    External Processors think out loud. They love brainstorming sessions because they get to work through their ideas with other people, and will often talk themselves through tasks. Without an understanding of the importance of this activity to an External Processor, others can find them too chatty or think they are flighty as every thought gets put into words and they seem unable to settle on one and move forward. Too often this leads to people jumping in and offering fixes or solutions before the External Processor has even organized their thoughts. Or if they are a leader, their team may believe that every comment is a directive and spend a lot of time accomplishing ideas and tasks that were not fully baked.

    Internal Processors have likely been called quiet throughout their whole life. They prefer meetings to have a clear agenda offered in advance so they can get their thoughts together, and need time to be alone with their ideas so they can understand them. Unless other people understand what is happening, Internal Processors can discover that others take their silence as personal, or that others do not see them as a team player because they don’t jump into the fray with their ideas. Often, Internal Processors are the team members that attend the next meeting wanting to talk about everything discussed at the last meeting –and others feel that the team can never move forward because every meeting is a regurgitation of the prior session,

    Naming and explaining these differences to your team has the power to diffuse these misconceptions. Most of the time we don’t understand how someone is different from ourselves – and because our thinking process is automatic, we expect others to think the same way.

    Isn’t That Just Introversion vs. Extroversion?

    Not necessarily. Extroversion is the quality of being outgoing and getting one’s energy through the interaction with others while introverts tend to focus their thinking inward and get their energy focusing on ideas on an individual basis.

    Extroversion does not necessarily always mean that someone is an external processor and the same with introversion does not necessary always mane that some is an internal processor. For example, you may be an extrovert who waits to speak until you know what you want to say, or you can be a talkative extrovert who shares thoughts with anyone who wants to listen.

    Determine Your Processing Type

    Some of us have a pretty clear idea of where we fall on this spectrum so it is worth taking a few extra minutes to explore the concept and how it has impacted your relationships with others, particularly in those moments in which you feel misunderstood.

    Internal Processors:

    • Need time to be alone with your thoughts
    • Prefer having time to prepare your thoughts in advance of a meeting
    • When sorting out your thoughts, you would prefer to take a solo walk than have a long conversation with a trusted friend or colleague
    • Putting your thoughts into words can be challenging, and you dislike being asked to talk about something important on the spot
    • Others may have taken your silence personally or acted annoyed when you add your thoughts after a meeting has ended (even though you just needed time to think!)

    External Processors:

    • Brainstorming sessions are your preferred type of meeting as they provide space for you to talk through your ideas
    • If you are stressed, you tend to share your thoughts and feelings as a means of working through them.
    • Sometimes you find yourself talking out loud even though no one is around
    • It frustrates you when someone jumps in with solutions before you have completed talking something through
    • Others may have found you chatty or flighty because they expect you only to share your final thoughts rather than giving you space to work it out.

    Minimize Communication Gaps

    Help your team members lessen communication errors by asking each of them to share what their processing style is. Understanding the difference up front leads to more space being given in the way each thinking style needs.

    Tips for External Processors

    • When you are thinking something through, make sure others know you are working it out, so they don’t confuse your thinking process with your final ideas.
    • Remind others that you are not ready for solutions and do not need anyone to solve it for you because you haven’t yet determined what needs to address.
    • Be patient when others don’t jump in with their thoughts and provide space for them to think through your ideas before getting back to you.
    • Use a recording device or write things down if you cannot brainstorm with a trusted colleague. Journaling works well because it can be your most trusted place to work out all your thoughts and feelings. This activity can be especially helpful if you are on a team dominated by Internal Processors.

    Tips for Internal Processors

    • Make every effort to organize your thoughts ahead of time. It may mean asking for an agenda or what the discussion will center around in your next team or one-on-one meeting.
    • Ask for time to think things over, and give a specific timeframe for when you can complete it.
    • Share with others that you require space to think to offer your best ideas, so they know you are not checking out or blowing them off.
    • Do something meditative such as walking or sitting quietly with the express intent of processing your thoughts.
    • Be patient when colleagues seem to stretch out a meeting or dominate the conversation with new ideas. If it looks like they have finished, get concrete on next steps so you can come prepared to the next meeting with ideas.

    Maximize Teamwork Through Understanding Differences

    By making an effort to understand and appreciate differences in your thinking and your team thinking you encourage everyone to get along with each other by not taking any difference in approach as an insult. You also make space for everyone to show up as they are rather than forcing themselves to behave in a manner that decreases their effectiveness.

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