How internal and external thinkers differ

External thinkers may have a tendency to say (or post) whatever comes into their head, even if they aren’t sure whether they agree with it, how it fits together, or even if it’s correct.

I call this my “thinking out loud” stage, where I have thoughts and ideas buzzing around in my head and sharing them with someone else - whether verbally or typing - helps me to process them into some kind of order.

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” ― Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices Tweet this

Internal thinkers, on the other hand, may process almost everything in their own head, having their own private conversations with themselves and fleshing out all the details before they even utter a word. They often don’t feel the need to discuss with others to process information.

Is one better than the other?

Both come with advantages and disadvantages, and people may behave differently in social situations than when taking decisions.

Internal thinkers may need more time to make decisions

Internal thinkers might be chatty in social situations, but when decisions need making, they may be less engaged, still thinking things through and bringing their ideas together in their own mind before committing to any actions. They often need quiet time to make decisions - needing to ‘sleep on it’ or take time to process the information before committing to actions.

Internal thinkers risk being left out of the discussion or talked over if they are not given the space they need to reflect on and process information. They can sometimes frustrate their external-thinking colleagues by back-tracking to previously discussed items when they come to a conclusion.

Sometimes, ideas arise, but an internal thinker might disregard it before even mentioning it to others. While they may not see any value in the idea, discarding it means that nobody else even hears about it - perhaps that idea is the key to unlocking your next big thing or a solution to a particularly thorny problem!

Internal thinkers need to feel they have a safe space to share their thinking without it being fully thought through Tweet this

External thinkers are literally “thinking out loud”

External thinkers are often highly engaged in discussions, putting out ideas and playing a key role in the interactions. You will often hear them literally say the words “I’m just thinking out loud here..” - which may seem completely alien to an internal thinker!

This can mean that ideas shared by an external thinker may not be thought through, they may not choose words with as much care, and their thoughts are just that - thoughts - rather than actual beliefs or views about a situation.

Sometimes external thinkers can be difficult to follow and easily misunderstood, because their views appear to chop and change with the wind. This is simply a reflection of how they process information. Sometimes, for example, I start to see relationships between things (or a lack of) as I’m speaking, or I figure out something is a daft idea in the speaking of it and disregard it.

If external thinkers don’t make it clear this is what they are doing, and bring themselves to a clear conclusion - for example with a statement such as “OK, here’s where I’m at with this” or “So, this is the conclusion I am coming to” - it can be difficult for others to follow their meandering!

How can you ensure that your community is supportive to all?

The first, most important thing is to recognise and respect that not everybody processes information and comes to decisions in the same way that you do. The central tenet of always assuming the best in others helps here - if an external thinker is dominating a discussion, there are tactful ways of encouraging them to develop an awareness of this without completely shutting them down.

Likewise, a good community leader will find ways to draw out internal thinkers, and ensure they feel safe in sharing their thought processes before they have everything set out in their mind and ‘making sense’ - perhaps noting they have been quiet and asking them directly if they would be willing to share their thoughts on the discussion - giving reassurance that it doesn’t matter if they are all fully formed and that all input is welcomed.

Listening for clues

You can encourage people to listen out for the key clues to build an understanding of how different people in the community process information.

Often they will literally say “I need some time to think this through” or “I’m just thinking this through out loud” which can be clear indications. Sometimes it’s more subtle - taking longer to respond, or choosing every word purposefully and carefully.

Giving space for processing

If you know that you have a team with a high proportion of internal thinkers, it’s often a good idea, if possible, to split important meetings where decisions need to be made.

The break doesn’t have to be long in duration - for example having a meeting to run through everything followed by a break, and then a follow up meeting later in the day where decisions are made and actions are assigned.

This approach not only gives internal thinkers some space to bring their thoughts together, but it also allows external thinkers time to thrash their ideas around and come to some conclusions by a specific time.

Have you found creative ways to engage people with different ways of processing information in your communities? How do you think this impacts the practical day-to-day functioning within your teams? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Image credit: Juan Rumimpunu