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Know How You Process Information By Mark L. Vincent

Understand how you and others process information so you can live wide-awake!

I’ve found it a worthwhile pursuit to learn how people process information, how they respond, and how they use or do not use that information to grow in wisdom. Learning style insights are being applied across many disciplines, and most especially among those responsible to teach and train adults in workplace and school.

One key understanding is whether we process information externally or internally. You might recognize the difference as that of “thinking out loud” or “needing time to think.”  In addition to their external or internal preference, folks will also draw deeply on audio, visual or kinesthetic inputs, which leads to six key combinations for how people learn.

Process Externally

For now, however, let’s focus on just the difference between external and internal. A person who thinks externally needs to process with other people or at least through some form of self-expression. Once their thoughts are expressed, they can edit, refine and focus—often based on the responses of others.  In other words, what they first say, or perhaps the first ten things they say, are not necessarily their idea. It is a notion they need to process in order to find out what they think. Such persons are often very intuitive.

Process Internally

A person who thinks internally needs to process alone, and with time and quiet. Once they are in touch and have opportunity to edit, refine and focus until they are satisfied that their idea is ready and worthwhile, they can express themselves. They need quiet in order to formulate an idea, and what they say does not find its way into expression until they have examined and perhaps discarded a number of responses. They must reflect before they can find expression.

Causes for Misunderstandings

So…you can imagine the misunderstanding that can arise between friends, neighbors, siblings, spouses, working teams, parents/children and communities of volunteers based on this single dynamic. Some wish others would be more forthcoming while others are wishing that some people would sit down and be quiet.

Don’t forget this gets even more complex when you take into account that folks are processing out loud or quietly based on a key learning channel—what they hear, what they see or what they physically experience. They are also likely to use a second input when the first isn’t working. That means that a person who processes externally through visual means (visual-external) might shift to kinesthetic-internal if they need to process further. Or, perhaps their second means is simply an extension and more intense version of their first means of gaining input. There are  a number of ways we can misunderstand one another—right at the beginning of how we process information.

Understanding Yourself

We do well to become conscious of how we process information, and then conscious of how those with whom we must relate do their processing. We can be aware of our own style and make allowances for the styles of others—becoming more well-rounded as we allow them to be who they are so that we can benefit. As we do, we discover we can learn from all of these channels and not just our dominant ones. We not only demonstrate a deeper quality of respect for others, we become better rounded as individuals.

Practical Example

Let me provide you with a conversation I had with my wife, Lorie, when she was still alive. I am often audio external, which means I think out loud, using words, expecting a conversation. When that isn’t working, my second style can be to turn up the intensity with more of the same. Lorie combined both audio and kinesthetic external, but then shifted to an audio internal as her second style.

So…sometimes when we were talking Lorie reacted quickly or even viscerally to something I said. My tendency was not to stop and reflect and make sure I heard her (which would have been the better course of action), but to turn up the heat. I matched Lorie’s quick reaction with one of my own. At that point Lorie would go quiet and not respond again for a while. It felt to me like Lorie was running away from the issue, and she felt like I was not letting something rest so she could think. We were a well-matched husband and wife so we kept working around this stuck point, but it played out over and over in our lives together.

Along the way I learned to let silence be OK.

I learned to give Lorie the time to think and to wait until she had time to respond.  I found that by living into what I was learning I demonstrated a deeper quality of love for her. Early in this learning, and in a rather mundane conversation as we were getting ready for the day, the sequence played out yet again. That time, however, I coached myself to be quiet and wait—not to go do something else while I waited for her to respond, not urging her to hurry up and say something, and seeking not to demonstrate impatience in any way.  Lorie continued doing what she was doing—in silence—(internally my fingernails were scratching the proverbial chalkboard while I kept coaching myself to wait). She put in her contacts and brushed her teeth in silence while I waited. When she finished she stood up and responded.  Just one sentence—a focused response that showed we were on the same page and ready to face the day together as mates.

Reflecting afterwards I realized we would have wasted more time had I pushed her to respond more quickly than the time I had previously felt we wasted while I waited for her to get in touch with her thoughts.

Becoming aware of self and others in this way is hard work, and it is transforming. For myself, I became a better husband, a better leader, AND a better follower of other leaders. It required my being wider-awake  to those around me.

Get Grounded

In order to be grounded, healthy people who are good stewards mind and spirit, we need to live in a rhythm of being attentive (we could also say “active”) and reflective. We need to go back and forth between action and reflection just like an oscillating fan goes from left to right and back again. The order doesn’t matter, but the process of moving back and forth does. This is how we digest information and convert it to wisdom. If we just seek activity we move toward being distracted—using activity as a means not to face reality and to avoid learning. If we seek just to reflect then we start to go elsewhere—using solitude as a means to not get involved and to avoid the realities of relationship. Being distracted or being elsewhere put us off balance and unaware.

Last Warning

A grave concern at this moment is how technology is adding to the problem of people who are living unconscious, elsewhere, distracted lives. It isn’t just a problem of bringing the smart phone to a family meal, but a problem of taking in all our information in a distracted state, not really paying attention to anything, and easily distracted from whatever is in front of us. This same science that shows us how we learn also demonstrates that we can only learn from one input at a time, not from multiplicity. Some may be better “channel changers” than others — sort of like holding a remote control for their brain and constantly switching channels —but this should not be mistaken as multi-tasking.

My concern is that:

  • people are mistaking access to increased information for growing in wisdom.
  • people are avoiding matters of the soul because they are so distracted.
  • people who claim Christian faith are not living a wide-awake life. They are avoiding learning about their faith. They are unconscious to, unmoored from and uncaring about what God is doing to redeem the world.
  • our unused learning muscles reflect a poor stewardship of our intellectual gifts.
  • we are losing our ability to anticipate and respond because we live in our artificially created constructions, blinded and comatose by our own choices.

The people who surround us are precious and offer many gifts that enrich our lives and our communities. We cannot make good use of these precious gifts if we are too distracted to notice them!


Mark L. Vincent is the Founder of Design Group International and the Society for Process Consulting. He hosts the Third Turn Podcast and facilitates Maestro-level leaders.


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