Do your colleagues confuse you?

An article by Getting a Grip founder, Robyn Pearce 

I had a really interesting discussion recently with a group of highly dedicated social workers doing great work with some of our most disadvantaged people in South Auckland. They were fascinated to learn what a difference it can make when we understand our differing ways of processing information.

At a macro level, we have five main ways to do this, commonly given the acronym VAKOG.  They are 

  • Visual; 
  • Auditory, which can be further broken down to either auditory tonal (sounds) or auditory digital (transferring sounds to written words); 
  • Kinaesthetic (or tactile); 
  • Olfactory (the sense of smell); and 
  • Gustatory (the sense of taste).

As we talked, it was as if I had given these lovely people a Christmas present. Only one in the group had studied the topic before, so they decided it would be very useful to know each other’s communication preferences. 

It quickly became apparent that occasional niggles they had with their colleagues were caused when people tried to communicate to others in the way they themselves would prefer, not the way their colleagues needed. Lots of laughs were shared as they realised why their buddies didn’t always respond as expected.

For example, a visual person can process information very quickly if they can see it.  When they need to retrieve that information they look into their memory for a picture of what they’ve seen.  If they can’t see what you’re talking about they can’t easily remember the point. They’re wired for the look of things, have a very strong awareness of their environment and visual details.

An auditory tonal person relies on what they hear and tends not to make many notes, if any. Their memory of what they’ve heard is very good. They also like to talk about things to check their understanding; in fact, they tend to formulate their opinions by sharing their thoughts with someone else. Many will say they don’t know what they think until they’ve had a chance to discuss it (but see the following point – there are variations.) 

On the other hand, an auditory digital person has to write down what they hear in order to remember.  If an auditory digital person is prevented from writing things down, they struggle to remember instructions, or even their own ideas, no matter how recently the information has been discussed.

A kinaesthetic person has to do something in order to anchor the information and to also be able to retrieve it from their memory. If they’re listening to someone, they’ll usually doodle in order to help their memory. (Don’t stop anyone from doodling – they’ll almost certainly be kinaesthetic and won’t be able to concentrate if you shut them down.) They need to sketch out ideas and concepts in order to help their imagination. They’re very impacted by touch and what something feels like.

The olfactory and gustatory styles relate to our sense of smell and taste and can add to memory recall and understanding, but are not often one’s predominant learning style.

Of course, we’re rarely only one processing style. Most of us will tap into at least one of the other processing methods as a secondary check on both the information received and our understanding.

Back to my social workers.

Aaron, one of the team, is a trained psychologist and reminded me of an important extra distinction – the variations between internal or external processors. An external processor needs to talk about something in order to check their understanding. An internal processor deeply considers an issue and once their ideas are well-formed, only then are they ready to share with others. They have a deep aversion to giving an answer unless they’re really sure it’s the right one.

Imagine the confusion when an external processor has a bright idea and shares it with an internal processor. The poor confused internal guy, who wouldn’t talk about something until he’s given it serious thought and considered all consequences, assumes his colleague has decided to proceed. The external person is just as likely, by the time she’s talked it through, to see that it wasn’t a good idea. She only needed a sounding board and goes away quite happy, leaving her internal buddy confused, wondering when they’re going off on this new tangent, and probably frustrated about wasted time.

Phrases Aaron suggested to help with this common confusion:

For the internal folk:

  • Are you needing help with this or are you just thinking about it?
  • Do you just want to know how it sounds?
  • How did you land on this idea?
  • Where are you up to at the moment?
  • Of all that you’ve said, what’s the most important?
  • What do you want me to do, if anything?
  • When do you see this being implemented?

For the external folk:

  • Would you mind if I use you for a sounding board?
  • I’ve got an idea and I’d just like some input.
  • This is what I’ve been considering. What do you think?
  • It might be a silly idea but I’d like to check your thoughts.

If an external processor says, ‘I’ve been thinking’, it’s unlikely to be a fully formed plan. However, an internal processor using the same phrase has given serious thought to something and has pretty much decided their course of action. 

That can be a downside too – their associates are likely to say, ‘Where did this idea come from? I had no idea you were thinking about … .’

Another of the many layers to this topic is how many repetitions we need before we can remember something new. Most people need it repeated in the way(s) they can access, between two – nine times before for the new knowledge will stick.  

I need at least four or five repetitions in some way. Take the content of this article. As Aaron talked, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote furiously, while listening intently. I even got him to repeat a couple of phrases.  I’m now writing it again for this article, analysing and thinking of further distinctions and deepening my understanding, and I’ll talk about it a top tip video later today. Because the topic is top of mind, it will almost certainly be discussed in up-coming speeches and seminars. And so the ideas will be cemented in my memory.

Perhaps this is the origin of the old saying “we teach best what we need to know”? What do you think?

Have fun exploring the way you and those around you process information. You might be surprised.


For over three decades Robyn Pearce, CSP built a reputation as the Time Queen. She’s the author of seven non-fiction books and creator of the Getting a Grip Programmes, which are now delivered by her successor – Lauren Parsons, CSP. The Getting a Grip Training Programmes can help you transform your time challenges into high productivity and the life balance you desire. Find out more here

Download the free report “How to Master Time In Only 90 Seconds”, a simple yet powerful diagnostic tool to help you identify your key areas for action. You’ll find it here

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