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Are You an Internal or External Processor? Understanding Your Thinking Style and How It Affects Your Life

Are you an internal processor or an external processor? Learn more about your thinking style.

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to think out loud, while others prefer to sit quietly and ponder their thoughts? And have you ever wondered why there’s such a difference? It all comes down to your thinking style. Whether you’re an internal or external processor can have a huge impact on how you make decisions, approach problem-solving, and interact with others. Understanding the different ways people think is essential for success in both your personal and professional life. This article will help you to identify your thinking style and explain how it affects your life, so that you can make the most of your strengths and weaknesses.

What’s the difference between internal and external processing?

First, let’s take a look at the difference between internal and external processing. Put simply, internal processors organize their thoughts inside their heads. External processors organize their thoughts and ideas outside of their heads.

In general, internal processors tend to mull things over internally, while external processors prefer to act on their thoughts as soon as they come up. Internal processors prefer a quiet environment to think through their ideas, while external processors feel their best when they’re surrounded by activity.

You may already have a sense of whether you’re more internal or external based on the way you approach different aspects of your life. However, if you’re still unsure, the following statements can help you to identify which thinking style is more natural for you.

Internal processors:

  • May feel caught off guard when they’re asked a question.
  • Struggle to feel like they know the right thing to say.
  • May feel “blank” when put on the spot.
  • May be accused by their partner of not caring or withholding their feelings.
  • May feel like they’re having a hard time keeping up with their partner’s many feelings.
  • Need time to formulate what they’re going to say.
  • May feel like they have a hard time articulating what you want to say.

 

External processors:

  • Think and problem-solve out loud.
  • May feel impatient with quiet while you’re processing.
  • Come up with more things to say as their talking. One thought leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another.
  • May seem like they’re switching topics.
  • May feel like they’re rambling.
  • Often feel unsatisfied by the response they’re getting from their internal partner.
  • Are often looking for instant problem-solving solutions and may struggle to be patient.

 

Some people don’t fall into either category.  If you’re unable to identify with either, you may be a different sort of thinker altogether. In this case, it is helpful to look at how you approach different aspects of your life to determine which thinking style fits you best.

How internal and external processing affect your life

As you’ve likely realized by now, the way you process your thoughts can have a significant impact on your life. If you’re an internal processor, you may feel like you’re not a good communicator or that you’re letting people down in some way that you have no control over. And…the harder you try, the worse it seems to get.

On the bright side, you likely prefer to think through problems alone, allowing yourself time to mull over solutions before sharing your thoughts with others. You might be considered a thoughtful person whose opinions are valued. You also may have an innate curiosity and like to explore a broad range of subjects. And, you may find yourself more likely to enjoy activities that are continuous and involve long-term planning.

As an external processor, you like to discuss problems with others and mull things less in your head. Well, it may start in your head, but ultimately has to come out because it feels cluttered inside. You need others to collaborate with and “run things by”. You may tend to feel more comfortable with abstract concepts and use metaphors or references to make sense of what you’re saying. You might prefer to talk about something immediately because leaving it in your head may cause you to feel lost.

Tips for communicating with someone of the opposite thinking style

Communicating with someone of a different thinking style can be tricky, especially when don’t understand that there are two different styles out there.

Here are some tips to communicate with an external processor:

  • Tell your external processor that you’re having a hard time following. Can you please slow down and talk about one thing at a time so I can follow.
  • Ask for a moment (or 15) to process your thoughts. Make sure to come back it later.
  • If you feel blank, tell your partner you don’t have an answer for them. Have compassion for how hard that might be for them. For example, “I know you want something from me right now. I don’t have an answer and it’s because my brain works differently and I need time to process. I know this is hard for you and it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
  • If it feels like your partner is rambling, bring them back by asking questions. You can say, “what is it that you need from me right now?” or “what is it that you want me to understand?”
  • Stay out of shame!!! There is nothing wrong with being an internal processor, in fact, there are many gifts. If you aren’t able to respond right away, that doesn’t mean you have some sort of deficit…it simply means your processing inside instead of outside.

 

Here are some tips to communicate with an internal processor:

  • Be specific. Instead of asking “what do you think?”, you could try asking “what solution can you come up with?”
  • When you’re not feeling satisfied when the communication of an internal processor, you may be tempted to pepper them with questions. It feels to you like you’re helping them think but this overwhelming for them. They’re likely still on the first question by the time you’re asking the third. Ask one question….and then wait.
  • If you’re an external processor and are trying to understand an internal-type, you may need to ask more questions to get the information you need. Make sure you’re not too forceful with your questions as this can shut down the conversation.
  • Count to 10. If you’re uncomfortable with silence during hard conversations, slow down and give your partner time. I recommend counting.
  • If you’ve given your internal partner time, and they still seem blank. You can ask, “do you need more time to think?”
  • Give them the space they need to come up with a solution on their own terms.

How to maximize your thinking style

If you’ve identified that you are an internal processor and want to become even more effective at problem-solving, try creating space for yourself to think through ideas. This means creating time in your schedule to think through problems and come up with solutions.

If you’re an external processor and want to maximize your strengths, slow down and be intentional with your words. Get clarity on what you want out of the conversation. Process out loud, WHILE making space for someone who doesn’t.

Resources for further learning

There are many resources available if you’d like to learn more about internal and external processing. You can read books, explore online articles, or attend workshops about the topic, or you can even talk to a qualified therapist if you’re having trouble making headway with your thinking. With the information in this article, you’ll be one step closer to understanding your own thinking style, as well as that of those around you, making it easier to collaborate on projects and solve problems as a team.

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