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Internal Vs. External Thinkers

Why is it that some people can talk and talk and talk, and others can sit silent for hours.  Is it easier to coach the talkers or the silents?  They both have their challenges.

Internal thinkers process almost everything inside their own head.  They have their own private conversation and work out all the details before they speak.  External thinkers talk through their thinking.  They process as they hear themselves say it. 

A coach must know whether a client processes internally or externally.

Internal Processors

  • They are careful with every word they say.
  • They may need to have their thinking expanded.  Because they don’t easily interact with others about their thinking, their thinking may be a bit more narrow.
  • They don’t like to speak until they’ve thought through the issue completely.  When they finally speak the decision, it may seem like a simple statement, but the act of speaking it aloud is very powerful for them.
  • It is easy to over talk an internal thinker.  They won’t mind if you talk during the entire session, but they need to come to their own conclusion.  Give them time to be silent and process.
  • An internal thinker will come to a conclusion and make a statement that might seem fairly obvious.  It may appear that they have simply stated a basic fact, but often, it is the first time they’ve articulated the words so exactly.  It is important for them to make statements out loud.
  • I recently had an internal thinker processing, but to get him to say the words out loud seemed to be the most painful thing I could make him do.  But once he said them, he knew that the obstacles before him would no longer stand in his way.

External Processors

  • They say whatever they are thinking and may not even agree with every word they say.
  • External thinkers have shared their thoughts with anyone who will listen.  They may have too broad a scope to their thinking.  A coach helps them focus their thinking.
  • External processors could talk through the entire coaching session and rabbit trail from this subject, to that, and back again.  The coach needs to help them focus and work through the details of the issue.  When they finally speak their decision, it is much more clarified and powerful.
  • 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.

Coaches should follow the 80/20 rule.  The coach should talk about 20% of the time, and the client should talk about 80%.

Are you an internal thinker or external thinker?  What are some of the problems interacting with someone who is opposite from you?

4 Comments
  1. 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?

  2. Viswag59 – Great question! In a recent class, a student said that he often drives his wife crazy as she is overwhelmed by all of his thoughts and ideas.

    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 gives the detail people the opportunity to start their own processes.

    The take away is to 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.

  3. 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 I can 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. This way he doesn’t feel completely blind. It might be encouraging to know that my wife and I have gotten better at it.

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