Thinking Out Loud

Keep Your Eye on the Circle

Gerry owns and runs a small manufacturing company. His General Manager, Brian, handles the day to day operations—assigning work, managing projects, and billing customers. Gerry and Brian get along well, and in fact, Gerry hopes to sell the business to Brian in about five years. He sees his own younger self in Brian, with similar values and work ethic.

One difference between them, however, is that Gerry talks a lot and mixes several very different ideas into conversations, making it difficult to follow his train of thought. Brian on the other hand is more self-contained, mulling ideas internally and talking more sparingly. During meetings, Brian is never quite sure where Gerry is going in the conversation, so he waits patiently with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. Gerry believes he’s been very clear about what he wants from Brian, so when Brian “waits to see,” Gerry interprets it as his not taking initiative. The situation often results in frustration for both of them.

To Gerry’s credit, he has tried on several occasions to discuss this pattern, which has resulted in solving an immediate problem but it didn’t change the pattern—and it’s the pattern that began to drive both of them crazy . . . and led to Gerry’s decision to get some help talking with Brian.

Through talking with each of them separately, I found them both motivated to fix the problem. They both are very dedicated to their work and each other, and that was part of why it was so upsetting to them to be confronting the same pattern over and over.

Gerry’s thinking out loud and Brian’s internal mulling are easy to observe and are natural to their inherent communication styles. These processes, however, had become exaggerated in response to the other. Brian had become quieter hoping to avoid conflict, and Gerry talked even more so there would be no doubt about what he was saying. Identifying this pattern for them was helpful but not key to solving the problem.

Both men have strong visual-spatial skills that they need and rely on to problem solve in the manufacturing process, constantly visualizing how to make constructive changes. When the three of us sat down to discuss how they might communicate more successfully, I asked Gerry (who gestures with his hands and arms while talking) to show us on paper what he was talking about. Without hesitation, he drew a small circle in the center of the paper and wrote Brian’s name in it. Then he drew six smaller circles surrounding the Brian circle. As he started drawing connecting lines between the circles, Brian stepped in and said, “Wait a sec . . . if you want me to . . .” and then he began to draw a diagram on the same page.

I stepped back and watched them collaborate and problem-solve, helping each other make sense of what they were seeing on the paper. They had discovered how adding a tangible, visual aid (a piece of paper and a pencil!) gave them the structure they needed to clarify communication and document the process for follow-up. This allowed them to be more specific and concrete.

Looking at our processing strengths often leads us to a key to solving communication problems in relationships. Even if it doesn’t result in an immediate fix the way it did for Gerry and Brian, it’s still a good place to begin the process.


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