Fast Company

Do You Talk to Think or Think to Talk?

We all have an internal pace that reveals itself when we engage in learning with other people. Frequently these paces clash. Get an expert's advice on how to best adapt your style to get the most out a situation.

Halfway through a planning meeting I offhandedly commented that some people talk to think, while others think to talk. The group stopped its discussion and asked me to say more.

Just as some people move faster or slower, some react quicker while others speak up more slowly. If you talk to think, as you go along you talk about what you're doing and learning. If you think to talk, you usually keep your thoughts under wraps until you have something specific to say, until you understand how to proceed, or possibly until the learning part of what you're doing ends.

I asked everyone to reflect on their own style of engaging with people: "Do you talk to think or do you think to talk?" The CFO, an even-tempered accountant, was still thinking through his answer while his gregarious boss blurted out, "I talk." His candid answer changed the nature of our meeting.

It had never dawned on most of the leaders in the room that their boss was frequently thinking out loud, saying things merely to generate ideas or learn from the dialogue. The realization that this might be the case prompted people to be more likely to ask the CEO questions in response to future suggestions or comments, and to learn more about how thoroughly their boss had considered his statement. In the long-term, this minor realization was instrumental in the improvement of all of their relationships and ultimately in how they ran their company.

Unfortunately, most learning opportunities -- including formal meetings, classes, and informal lunch conversations -- do very little for either group. Talk-to-thinkers often don't have enough time to speak. Think-to-talkers rarely have enough time to reflect.

Are You a Talk-to-Think Learner?

If you're a talk-to-think learner, I suspect you talk continuously while learning. You probably sound out ideas and say what's on your mind. Because you rely on other people's responses, you may prefer to work in a group or on a team. Even when you're alone, you might catch yourself talking to yourself.

From childhood, you may recall school days when you responded to your teacher's request by raising your hand quickly or blurting out answers. Even now, you probably grow impatient when you work with a person who takes their time before responding, and hear yourself interrupting or filling in gaps when someone speaks slowly.

Tips for Talk-to-Think Learners

  • Be transparent: Introduce statements with, "I'm just thinking aloud here," and ask other people to point out (gently) when you're talking too much.
  • Announce your intentions: If you tend to talk continually, people might not realize when you're ready to move forward. Let them know when you've reached a conclusion versus when you're just tossing ideas around.
  • Ask for comments: If you don't receive an opinion or suggestion right away, be more specific in what you're asking for. Some people need time to absorb what you've asked before they can reply. Your clear request might help them respond sooner.
  • Wait for a response: If you're prone to spit out ideas faster than the people around you can, count to ten before offering your views. You might be surprised to hear someone else propose a similar (or more relevant) idea and you may feel relief knowing other people think the same thing.
  • Make time to weigh your decisions: When you work with people in a group, you might have a tendency to start working on plans that the group hasn't fully explored. Next time, work with the group to make a list of the pros and the cons before making a decision. You can add your thoughts quickly and others can see what's already been thought through.

Are You a Think-to-Talk Learner?

If you're a think-to-talk learner, you probably wouldn't dare say something before you think it through thoroughly. You might need additional quiet time formulating a response to what you've heard. You may prefer to work alone or in a pair and you might want to take your time when facing a challenge. I suspect you've learned you make better decisions when you reflect on all the aspects of the problem.

To others, though, it may seem like you're not deliberating because you're quiet. Remind people you're willing to offer your thoughts once you've had time to think through what's been said. Tell them the quality of your contribution usually improves when you have enough time to reflect. Consider, however, that if you don't speak up or if you take too long to process and analyze a situation, you may lose your chance to have any say at all.

Tips for Think-to-Talk Learners

  • Request more time: Ask for the time you need to think everything through. Explain to people that if you have enough time, you will have a higher-quality response. The words, "Could you give me a minute to think through this?" may create the necessary pause in a group activity for everyone else to improve what they say, too.
  • Ask for help: When it's important to make a decision faster than you're comfortable with, ask for input from other people. Identify the less important parts of a decision first and then build towards making a final decision.
  • Practice sharing your thoughts: Verbalize your thoughts to a trusted friend -- not so that this person can scrutinize you, but rather so you can get comfortable with sharing your ideas. With some rehearsal, you can use your think-to-talk style to help other people to learn more.
  • Make time to analyze: If you're a think-to-talk learner who works with other people in a group, you might find it challenging to keep up with the pace of conversation. Focus your energy, instead, on making a list of the pros and cons of any decisions under consideration so that you can share what you've thought about with the group. By tracking your thoughts, you can help the group make progress and make a wise choice.

So if you seem to talk straight out of your head, or head straight into your thoughts, try these tips and ask for others from people both with your style and the opposite one that probably, up until now, made little sense. If you can find a way to appreciate how other approaches differ, you are likely to develop a deeper understanding of your own style, as well as a capacity to value the styles of those around you, that will help you learn more.

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8 Comments

  • Alex Gawn

    I don't fit either of these. There are doubtless many more descriptors for the way one thinks than "think to talk" and "talk to think". I require neither speech for thinking or thought for speech.

  • Thomas Chute

    you should fit one of the categories, if you dont you must just be finding a reason not to, im a talk to thinker and my brother is a think to talker, we are ying and yang and we work together amazingly

  • Pharo

    Great. I think it's really good advice that a Talk-to-Thinker should flag upfront that they're thinking out loud. I realise now that this is what I am. I've always found discussing ideas and thoughts out loud to be so useful for shaping them, but not considered how differently Think-to-Talkers may need to engage.

    I think that there's a huge corollary with sketching / drawing as a way of capturing and reflecting loose ideas so as to better study how the bigger picture takes shape.

  • Daniel Marrazzo

    Does "write to think" count?  I often find myself taking notes in a stream of consciousness fashion and this process helps me connect dots, strategize and plan.

  • Thomas Chute

    just say what ever your thinking about when working through a problem, i tend to talk out the steps i plan to take a few minutes in advance so people around me know what im thinking,