Whether you are an internal or external processor correlates to whether you are more extroverted or introverted. How you process information impacts how you explore ideas and reach decisions.
If you and your SO don’t have matching processing styles, it’s easy to misunderstand each other and land yourselves in conflict.
What Is Internal vs. External Processing?
Imagine an Internal Processor and an External Processor shopping for clothes.
The Internal Processor (IP) comes to the store with a solid goal already in mind: e.g. I need jeans.
- He likely knows his exact measurements, what kind of wash and fit he wants, etc.
- He tries on approximately 3 pairs of jeans that are nearly identical, different perhaps only in brand and price.
- OR, more likely yet, after he’s put in the work to find a pair of (probably high-quality, more expensive) jeans he likes, he just keeps reordering the same thing from Amazon whenever his stock needs replenishing –no more stores!
- He’s been wearing the same brand and style of jeans (and shoes, and most everything else) for years with no strong prospects of changing his taste on the horizon.
The External Processor (EP) knows she needs pants — maybe jeans, but she’s not sure until she can look around at her options.
- Previous experience has taught her that she doesn’t look good in light-washed jeans or bellbottoms, but she tries on a pair of each just for confirmation.
- The subtle differences between brands of the [otherwise exact same] pants doesn’t really matter …
- But she ultimately tries on at least a dozen often very divergent kinds of pants — all sorts of different fabrics, lengths, cuts, etc. until she makes her selection.
- She is leery of online shopping (trying things on is a necessity) and has a hard time buying more expensive clothes ‘built to last’.
- Her style has been bohemian, classic chic, nerdy, and much more; and she doesn’t know how soon she might gravitate toward something new.
So, now imagine that the IP and the EP went shopping together.
The external processor scarcely understands why the bother since it took the IP only 10 minutes to look at 3 pairs of jeans that looked identical anyway (and he was cranky the whole time about being at the mall).
On the other hand, the internal processor is about losing his mind at how long it’s taking the external processor to try on seemingly a thousand different items that scarcely even seem related half the time — why is she so ill-prepared and indecisive?
Internal processors think in ‘spirals’.
- Internal processors start with a big, general, vague concept and gradually, systematically hone in on specifics. Because they ‘spiral’ around an idea …
- They initially maintain a safe distance that isn’t over-committed. They take their time to research, study, observe, ponder. They don’t ‘jump into things’.
- Once they do reach a decision, though, they are fully committed to it — they already took the time to test scenarios out in their heads and to reach conclusions based on time-elapsed evidence. They aren’t generally easily swayed and might not ever change their minds (or, if they do, it will be another long process).
- Stereotypically speaking, math / science / technology nerds are often internal processors, although, again, any person more so on the introverted side of the spectrum will gravitate toward internal processing.
- IPs often don’t share their thoughts with the external world until they’ve reached a firm decision (or are at least very close to one). Not only are IPs capable of internal processing, but they simple feel uncomfortable by ‘exposing’ their thoughts to others until fully developed. When a decision is reached and then shared, it’s a sure-fire deal that everyone else can count on (whether they like that or not).
- While resolute, well-formed decisions are a definite pro; the potential con to being an internal processor is inaction and missing windows of opportunity.
- To external processors, IPs can seem unimaginative, slow, rigid, or boring.
External Processors think in ‘zigzags’.
- External Processors must be armed with a plan, no matter how tenuous. They must always be headed somewhere very specific, if not in actuality with their choices, at least in their own minds as they weigh options.
- Thus, they mentally jump into the proverbial 10-foot pool feet first. Their motto is “I can’t know if I like it if I don’t try it”. External processors ‘bee-line’ toward a goal.
- The ‘bee-line plan’ often changes frequently and drastically, though (thus the zigzag pattern) since they must test out opposing possibilities in order to eventually find the given (relatively more moderate) path they want to stay on.
- Stereotypical EPs are the ‘artsy’ types who are jacks-of-all-[creative]-trades, who go on ‘crazy’ world-traveling adventures, and who seem to bounce around from one job to the next relatively often.
- EPs tend to share their half-baked thoughts and fleeting whims immediately with others because talking through an idea (vs. keeping it only in their heads) — or at least journaling about it or somehow externalizing the process — is what external processing is all about. A concept has to be presented outside of the EP in order for her to connect the dots appropriately — non-verbalized thoughts can feel very jumbled and confusing.
- An undaunted, curious, open-minded perspective toward various decisions is great; but EPs sometimes land themselves in trouble with a certain lack of stability.
- To internal processors, EPs seem flighty, undependable, excitable, and maybe a little terrifying.
Another practical, real-life application the differences between an internal processor (IP) and an external processor (EP) might look like this:
Scenario: IP husband is soul-searching, trying to find a new line of work that might entail re-location for the whole family.
He spends weeks –if not months– drawing up documents, spreadsheets, and flowcharts starting with macro-issues (e.g. ‘what do I enjoy’ and ‘what are up-and-coming fields of importance’).
He gradually, systematically zeroes in on an appealing field that also conveniently would be a gateway into other, related and attractive fields. Then starts the process of looking into actual jobs and the details of the cities where they’re located, etc.
As the decision-making spiral has gotten smaller and smaller, IP husband has tapped more and more into his imagination and emotions (once a decision is real, it’s time to get excited!). Most other people don’t hear about the potential change until it’s practically a reality.
She thinks of a few specific, yet random places where they have friends and/or family and does a quick search to see what the areas offer — is there swing dancing? board gamer meet-ups? enough cute cafés? Are there other private piano teachers already monopolizing the market? Are there some nice, affordable homes for sale?
Each search takes maybe a half hour and can be for places as far apart and otherwise divergent as small-town Arkansas, rural Montana, and Boston (and that’s only if she’s already eliminated overseas options for some pre-established reason).
She has to temporarily emotionally invest — really imagine they are moving there for sure — in order to better test out the different places in her mind. Rather than externally organizing her thoughts into various documents, she prefers to just talk about all the options with her husband and her friends, forming her pros and cons lists as she spouts.
When IPs and EPs Are Stressed Out
When anyone is dangerously near their personal tipping point, of course, we are more prone to the extremes of our processing styles and more likely to rub each other the wrong way.
When I’m chronically stressed out, I expect (and encourage) myself to have a little binge of EP whimsy.
- What potential solution to my current problems occurs to me, I allow myself to dive into that for a while: let’s just up-and-expat to Argentina, or I could teach ESL in Korea, or perhaps I should go to school and study midwifery, or I think I’ll take up a glass-blowing hobby.
- My freetime might be sucked up for a day, two or three; but it always helps me feel much better — generally because, due to my very nature as an EP, I need to be occasionally reassured that I’ve made the ‘right choice’ and am actually happy where I am.
- OR, of course, sometimes this exploration leads me to make a new choice that I deem better for myself, and that’s good, too!
- I try to appropriately inform my IP husband that I’ve been feeling stressed and therefore exploring new escape routes so that he knows to take my external processing with an extra grain of salt.
When my IP husband is stressed out,
- He has to work extra hard at remembering to talk to me and not keep everything to himself (or, I might have to gently encourage him in this direction, too).
- He puts forth more effort to allow me to weigh in with my thoughts instead of him just staying locked in his own head.
- He tries to keep in mind that when I ‘push back’ against a decision he’s made for himself (paired with a request on me), I’m not trying to ‘violate his boundaries’, but, rather, as an EP simply constantly see lots of variables which I think might change his mind (<– if he were an EP, maybe!)
Of course, both of us have committed to each other to never make an important decision (sometimes we scarcely make unimportant decisions) when we’re stressed out.
Better to stay with the status quo and make as many easy choices as possible (e.g. ordering take-out multiple times in a week) then to act hastily.
This one principle of intentionally waiting to process a given issue has been invaluably helpful to us — saving us from even more stress and definitely preventing arguments.
How IPs and EPs Misunderstand Each Other
Until IPs and EPs better understand each other, they can both be rather irritated with each other’s different processing style.
- feel irritated by (what they perceive as) slow, stalled, belabored decision-making.
- might view IPs as being frustratingly lackadaisical, incomprehensibly hesitant, aggravatingly ‘heady’, emotionally uninvested, and dull killjoys.
- might get frustrated with the perceived lack of gumption and seeming indecision when long stretches of time go by and the IP is still thinking.
- when the IP (finally) reaches a decision, the EP interprets it so unemphatically that she often [unintentionally] doesn’t take him seriously enough.
- feel irritated by (what they perceive as) premature, rushed, impermanent decision-making.
- might view External Processors as disconcertingly flighty, annoyingly unreliable, puzzlingly unpredictable, emotionally reactive, and exhausting.
- might be alarmed and stressed, thinking that the EP is ‘serious’ about her latest idea to open up a B&B or start dog fostering or to farm for a stint in Australia.
- (if overprotective), might hurtfully dismiss the EP’s natural and necessary enthusiasm for new ideas by not really engaging with her.
The challenge for the IP is to learn how to hear the EP out without freaking out -- let her externally process without then internalizing her ideas (not her decisions).
The challenge for the EP is patiently give the IP time and space to process in his way and then to understand that once a decision has been shared (particularly if it's coupled with certain requests on the EP), consider it iron-clad truth!
This, actually, ties into the single-most difficult aspect of my husband and me trying to strike a balance between our different processing styles:
Since IPs are introverts, they need ‘sacred time’ and ‘sacred space’ [Read more here].
My IP husband is very comfortable making big, generalized statements such as ‘I need you to not interrupt me (unless the house is burning down) between 8:30-11:30AM every day while I’m doing my best work.’
As an EP, I see all the exceptions to any given rule: ‘But what if I’m ordering take-out for lunch and need to ask you what you want?’ ‘What if we have an imminent social engagement and I need you to weigh in on some detail in order to get back to our friends on it?’ ‘What if I grabbed the wrong pair of socks [Note: we have an office/bedroom combo] and I need to leave now?!’
As a principle, it's key for IPs and EPs to bear in mind that where no true agreement is possible, the more conservative approach between the two parties must be adopted.
In the context of different processing styles, this means that the EP will need to make more concessions to the IP. It’s more traumatizing to the IP to be pushed beyond his comfortable limits than for the EP to say within smaller bounds than what she could.
So, while I don’t like feeling barred from the bedroom/office for any particular chunk of time, respecting that IP boundary doesn’t distress me.
While to an EP this seems so ‘extreme’, I can also embrace my IP husband wearing noise-cancelling headphones, avoiding eye contact with me, and otherwise treating me as invisible if we must briefly be in the same space together during his sacred time. He knows his own needs and it’s relatively easy for me to accommodate them.
I understand that as an IP, my husband is easily distracted by the simplest of words spoken to him when he’s trying to process (i.e. think / work) on something and also that it can take him 20-30 minutes to get back in the zone (something I don’t deal with as an EP).
Compromises in an IP/EP Relationship
I, the EP, and my IP husband have worked on making the additional following adjustments to how we share our processing with each other so that conflict is minimized:
- I intentionally hold my tongue and don’t immediately tell him every last idea in my head. I wait until I perceive him to be so relaxed that my external processing is less likely to distress him.
- I have learned how to take my own processing with the appropriate grain of salt and now rarely uber-invest upfront in an idea; I keep my own enthusiasm a little more maturely tempered.
- When I do externally process with my husband (or any IP friend, for that matter), I also take care to tone my presentation down, so as to not alarm, and even to provide a helpful reminder / disclaimer that I’m “just externally processing”, as in ‘I’ve not saying I’m going to do XYZ … I’m just tossing around the idea … maybe for just a minute.’
- Of course, I also particularly treasure my fellow EP friends since all EPs are still going to need moments that we can go imaginatively wild with even totally hair-brained ideas and allow ourselves some moments of rapture.
- My husband now takes care to loop me in on his thoughts earlier in the game. I appreciate being involved in the evolution of his pondering (vs. being potentially broadsided by a too-unilateral decision later on) and he’s also found value in at least some external processing.
- My husband tries to share his decisions a little more strongly now, so that the weight of them doesn’t fly under my radar.
- At the same time that I try to exercise patience, my husband is also receptive to my efforts to help speed his processing along and encourage him into action.
While neither of us will ever totally ‘get’ what it’s like to live in the other’s skin, trust rooted in empathy takes us a long way
I, the EP:
- trust his ability to arrive at a solid decision in his own time and way.
- trust that he’ll be totally emotionally invested once he’s convinced it’s safe to throw himself all-in.
- don’t take it personally when he needs separation from me in order to think.
He, the IP:
- trusts that, although I contemplate a lot of changes and have to ‘try each idea on’ by sitting with it for a while, functioning as if it’s the ‘New Plan’, I’ll ultimately turn (or return) to a Truly Good Plan.
- trusts that he doesn’t have to always immediately (and with the greatest alarm) point out the flaws in my initial ideas –I’ll find them eventually myself as I continue processing in my own way.
We both empathetically and humbly embrace the concept that, when it comes to processing styles, different is just different, not 'right' or 'wrong' or even necessarily 'better than' or 'lesser than'.
We acknowledge and accept the relative strengths and weaknesses of our different processing styles and support each other in our efforts to maximize the pros and diminish the cons.
Since we process information so differently, we appreciate the special balance we have in our partnership when it comes to making decisions — it truly is an asset!