I’m that guy—the one who has no trouble talking during meetings. Even if I don’t know an answer off the top of my head, I figure if I talk long enough I’ll find one. Yes, that is a strategy Michael Scott of The Office employs. And yes, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it. As an external processor, though, it’s part of who I am.
“Thoughts become real when I say them,” my friend recently told me, and I completely agreed. External processors like us (sometimes called verbal processors) need to talk our thoughts out in order to figure out what we truly think, feel, and believe. It’s a messy process—like spilling out your junk drawer just to find out what’s in it. We’re constantly living out a Whose Line Is It Anyway? skit.
Tips for dealing with (and being) an external processor
For those who aren’t wired the same way, a conversation with an external processor can feel like a firehose to the face. How can you effectively connect with your verbal-processing spouse? And how can we external processors get everything out without reducing the listener to a sweaty, tear-stained puddle?
Here are a few tips for both sides.
1. Find the right time.
There are times in the day when, despite our best intentions, we’re just not ready to go deep. When our 3-year-old’s using our legs for a bridge, or we just signed off a 90-minute HR meeting—on Zoom, no less—we’re simply not going to be able to listen well.
External processors, before diving into a topic, make sure your spouse has the energy to engage. Asking, “Can I process something with you?” then waiting for the answer and accepting a “not now” might be frustrating, but if your partner’s not up to it things will devolve. For my wife and me, this is how a lot of our fights begin—with me listening passive aggressively, unwilling to admit my need for a moment or two.
Ask permission and accept the answer. Save yourself that sore back from a night spent on the couch. Realize that sometimes we’re asked simple questions for simple responses. If an answer to “How was your day?” takes more than two sentences, a quick check-in shows love: “Can I unpack my day with you for a bit?”
2. Set some ground rules.
When external processors talk thoughts out, we usually say things we don’t mean. We could also accidentally articulate in hurtful ways as we try to figure out what exactly is going on inside of us, since we’re forming rough drafts of our thoughts in order to examine them.
Often, my process starts with accusation and moves toward brokenness: “I think this is your fault, and here’s why” becomes, “Oh, you know what? This is my issue.” There’s ample space for (legitimate) fury in between those sentences. It’s great to have a pre-conversation in which we affirm our love for each other, agree we’re on the same team, and commit to lowering defenses.
3. Let the process play out.
Once you’re in sync, feel free to get it all out.
For those on the receiving end, as hard as it may be, allowing us wordsmiths to dive all the way to the bottom can be a life-giving experience. So resist interrupting. Instead, when your spouse finally runs out of steam, give them an extra-special gift by asking, “Is there more?” (There probably is.)
Processors, once the tank is drained, it’s your turn. Reciprocate. Reflect the question to your incredibly kind listener and invite their feedback. Listen as well as you speak.
4. Treat listening as success.
In Between the Words, Norm Wakefield makes a crucial distinction between understanding and agreeing: Listening to someone and understanding their perspective doesn’t mean you think what they’re saying is correct. If we don’t understand that, we’ll short-circuit the listening process by turning a conversation into a debate.
Remember, even if someone articulates an opinion, that doesn’t mean they believe it. External processors are especially prone to voicing a theory only to tear it down. Don’t fret—it’s still appropriate to push back when you disagree. But timing is everything. Allow your partner to get everything out and complete the process before giving your input. Then make sure you thoroughly understand the heart of their thoughts before you engage. Reflect what you’ve heard back to the listener with this phrase: “If I’m understanding you correctly, you think that___. Am I hearing you right?”
So many fights in our house start because I’m not truly hearing my wife. Usually, it revolves around something she said that I bow up to be bigger than she meant. My wife’s understandable request to run a purchase by her turns into me rage-whispering, “So, you think I’m irresponsible with money? You don’t trust me to handle this little thing?” See what I did there? If I can avoid reading my insecurities into my wife’s statements, I can save my marriage some trauma.
An external processor’s hero
Trust me—external processors desperately wish we could figure things out inside our own heads. We don’t want to need help wading through our labyrinth of thoughts and ideas. But God designed us this way, dependent upon a listening ear. We need you—it might not only be your spouse, but a co-worker or a friend who’s itching to get some thoughts out in the open. Being that person can open a world of connection and understanding in your marriage and with your neighbors.
And when a genius idea pops out of one of their mouths, guess who gets to share in the credit?
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Andy Allan provides care and logistical support for Cru missionaries serving abroad and writes for FamilyLife and other Christian ministries. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and two kids, Ellie and Bodie. You’ll find him biking Lincoln’s trails or watching the latest Fast and Furious movie. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KazBullet.