Thinking by talking

I had a teddy bear moment today. I was trying to debug something at work, got stuck, asked one of my coworkers to help me, explained the problem to him, and said “Oh, I see what’s going on” without them saying anything. I guess I should bring a teddy bear into work so that I can explain problems to it before bothering my coworkers.

This incident is a reminder of my last post about conversation, where I realized I “only figure stuff out by talking about it” with other people rather than pondering it alone. It seems very similar to the classic extrovert/introvert divide, in that extroverts recharge with other people and introverts need alone time, and they have a very difficult time dealing with each other, as the article Caring for Your Introvert explains. Like the personality types, the different thinking types have fundamentally clashing assumptions which makes for wacky hijinks.

To make the rest of this post coherent, I will refer to people who think by talking as “talkers” and to people who think by themselves as “ponderers”.

One of the ways in which the thinking types clash is in how they approach conversations. For instance, because I am a “talker”, I often throw out completely unformed thoughts just to see what happens. I see ideas in conversation as being malleable; they’re batted around, and new ideas are constructed in a cooperative effort. My post about patterns and truth indicates my disdain towards absolute Truth when compared to the joy of following ideas where they lead.

“Ponderers” hate this because they treat conversation as a way to exchange information about what one already thinks, not as an opportunity to refine one’s thoughts. This doesn’t mean they are closed-minded; they will take in new input, but they will process it later on their own. To say something in public without having supporting evidence is anathema to them.

You can see why conversations between the two thinking types might cause problems (exaggerated for effect and from the perspective of a “talker”):
Talker: “Hey, so what about Idea A?”
Ponderer: “I don’t think that’s a good idea because of Reasons X, Y and Z”
Talker: “Oh, good point. Well, what if we modify the idea and try idea B instead?”
Ponderer: “Wait, that doesn’t match what you said before.”
Talker: “Yeah, I’ve moved on and I’m trying something new”
Ponderer: “You’re being inconsistent! What do you really think?”
Talker: “Well, I thought idea A, but that doesn’t hold up, so maybe idea B.”
Ponderer: “How am I supposed to talk to you when you can’t make up your mind?”

The two sides have differing assumptions about the purpose of conversation. “Ponderers” see conversation as akin to siege warfare, where they bring their ideas and their supporting evidence to bear, and try to discredit the other’s ideas. When they finish the conversation, they examine the damage done by the other side, figure out how to rebuild their ideas, and prepare for the next battle. Meanwhile, “talkers” like me are bouncing ideas around during the conversation, changing as we go, but have difficulty developing new ideas on our own.

So we both get frustrated at the next conversation. They come back to the conversation re-armed with reformulated ideas with new supporting evidence, and wonder why I’m wasting their time when I haven’t changed my ideas since we last talked. Then during the conversation, I start evolving my ideas, which frustrates them even more because they can’t bring their artillery to bear on the rapidly moving target. I get frustrated because they stick to their fortifications and refuse to change their ideas based on what we’re talking about together.

I’m projecting how “ponderers” think, but I can definitely see why I would drive them nuts with my constantly shifting thoughts. And I certainly have felt my own frustration at not being able to get people to go with my flow during brainstorming conversations. Just being aware of the differences may help me identify more constructive ways to make this interaction work in the future.

It’s also helpful to remind myself that when I get stuck, it’s probably not productive for me to continue bashing my head into the metaphoric wall. The best way for me to identify a new approach is to talk it through with somebody else. As the teddy bear story shows, it doesn’t have to be somebody that understands it and may work better if it isn’t – by breaking the problem down to try to explain it, I may figure out a new way of seeing the problem that provides a possible solution.

Do these archetypes of thinking make sense? How do you think?

6 thoughts on “Thinking by talking

  1. I think I must be a ponderer by this measure, even though I very much enjoy conversation. Some possible insights from the ponderer side:

    The ponderer does not want to muck up the conversational channel with things that are not true. So the ponderer is used to using and hearing qualifiers of certainty, and gets confused and frustrated when a talker gives no indication of the levels of certainty they have in what they’re saying (e.g., “I’m hungry” and “Python couldn’t possibly work for this app” and “Single-payer healthcare has the best chance of solving this crisis” being said in exactly the same tone & style).

    The ponderer likes telling and hearing chunks – anecdotes, claims linked to evidence — to assemble into a worldview. A ponderer very well might come back a day later and say, “you’re right,” and consider that a gesture of vulnerability — so be kind!

    The ponderer might distrust someone who seems to be a Wikifriend. Rather than “you won’t make up your mind,” the ponderer might think, “you’re just playing devil’s advocate,” and/or believe the talker unprincipled and therefore untrustworthy.

    Perhaps the ponderer takes pride in iconoclasm, which means decreasing the permeability of the firewall between others’ opinions and one’s own.

    And ponderers take pride in their beliefs and values and knowledge, which they’ve worked so hard to earn and construct. But a talker can try to gently disconnect a conversation from a ponderer’s sense of self by explicitly labelling the conversation a brainstorming/speculation session. Or, even more radically, you could explicitly say before starting the discussion, “I respect you and your intellect deeply, which is why I wanted to solicit your ideas.” That might get a ponderer to lower the defenses a bit and feel more secure (and therefore open).

    How can a ponderer get a talker to be a bit less fluid and more lawyerly?

  2. Oh yeah, and a tact filter analog here is the certainty/”seriousness” filter.

    Another promising avenue: the perceived importance of intellectual invulnerability. Under what circumstances do you care that someone disagrees with you, especially publicly? Under what circumstances do you worry that the other person/people will think you weak or dumb if you don’t voice your opposing view strongly and elegantly? or if you suggest a half-formed thought in the spirit of the Talker? I remember one lunch break last summer when I made some germ of a suggestion about a trip and Noah found it laughable, so the idea died on the vine.

    Pondering does seem amenable to critical, nitpicking conversations that tear things apart; Talkering seems more friendly to resourceful idea-growth. I find that I’m more of a Ponderer at work and a Talker at home, where I feel more secure. Context, again.

  3. I’ve had this discussion with a collegage at Microsoft who’s a quite highly respected cognitive scientist. We were talking about the role of reflection, as in Schon’s The Reflective Practioner, and they just couldn’t see the point of talking about stuff to get insights: they saw reflection as a solo process, alone with one’s mind.

    So yeah, I completely recognize the distinction you’re talking about. And you might enjoy throwing Schon onto your reading list: it’s totally up your alley, and it’s what you do anyway.

  4. I talked about this with a friend last night (remembering the dichotomy as “Talkers and Builders”) and a couple of things came up. First, another book that she’d read had this same paradigm labeled as Dialogue v. Debate. Second — if a ponderer wants a talker to converse in a more ponder-y style, perhaps she could say, “I’m trying to be really concrete and specific and figure out the advantages and flaws of THIS ONE IDEA. Could you help me think about it?”

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