Talk-To-Think, Think-To-Talk, and leadership
This cop threw me to the ground, cos hip hop is violent,
Said “You got freedom of speech, just choose to remain silent”
– Hilltop Hoods, Mic Felon
Effectively communicating with people in and around your team is the most important skill you need to develop as a leader.
How you communicate with people in your team defines how you build relationships and trust. Understanding how you communicate with people is key to being an effective leader and multiplier.
There are two main communication styles: talk to think, and think to talk.
Talk-to-think values speed over accuracy.
It is rapid fire brainstorming.
You say what comes to mind, no filter.
Don’t hold back. Be bold. Agitate.
It’s messy, chaotic, beautiful.
This communication style is excellent for covering lots of ground quickly, especially if you’re trying to quickly sketch a picture of a problem domain and potential solutions amongst of group of people. You use approximations of terms and ideas - the details don’t matter as much, as long as you communicate the gist.
Think-to-talk values accuracy over speed.
It is measured, sometimes slow, but always methodical. You don’t say what comes to mind immediately - you spend time thinking about articulating your ideas and arguments before saying them. You chose your words carefully, and embrace the ebbing silence.
Think-to-talk is excellent for covering a smaller, sometime sensitive topic area with depth and nuance.
Your communication style
You tend to use one style over the other, but the styles are not mutually exclusive.
I am firmly in the Think-To-Talk camp. When I started my career change I spent a lot of time befuddled why some conversations flowed effortlessly, and others felt like a bucking horse I could barely hold onto.
Realising that my experience was not universal and I needed to level up on my communication styles is one of the things I wish I was told when I became a manager.
Everyone is different. Some people’s communication is dominated by one style, others are someone in between. Some can fluidly move between styles, others take a while to transition, if at all. Fluidity and style are intersecting spectrums.
The good news is that either style can be learned - they just require practice and patience.
And you need to be adept at both if you’re going to be an effective leader.
Leadership and the two styles
You likely are proficient with one of the styles. Now you’re in the midst of your career change, you need to start cultivating the other style.
Why? Because your job will have you in situations where you’ll need to pick and choose the style based on the problem you’re dealing with. Also, it’s not about you - the people you lead are going to employ a mix of styles that you’ll need to match and adapt to.
You’ll often find that conversations stick to one communication style. Through experience you’ll get better at predicting ahead of time what style is called for, based on the topics, and who you’re talking to in your team.
Always be cautious of what you think you know - the situation may change and you’ll need to change your style. As Mark Twain said:
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
Sometimes you’ll need to switch styles mid-conversation. This can happen mid-1:1 when you’re switching from The Idea to The Person. Making that switch can be hard, and you’ll probably mess it up. That’s cool, we’ve all been there. You’ll get better with practice, just keep at it.
One of the most important things you can do to cultivate your skill is to spend time every day reflecting on the conversations you’re having with your people. Do it at the end of every conversation, or at the end of the day. Just make sure you do it.
The two questions you need to ask:
- What style was in use by people in the room?
- Was the style appropriate, given the topic?
What style should I use?
The context of the conversation determines what style you use. It’s your job to identify that context. Practice, practice, practice.
When picking the style, ask yourself: What are the implications of the conversation for the people involved? Are you talking about ideas, or people?
Talk-to-think is brilliant for discussing ideas. You’ll use it heavily for technical problem solving, when sketching out a problem and devising potential solutions as a team. Talk-to-think can also be used for organisational problem solving, when discussing org structure problems, organisational debt or inefficiencies. The caveat is that you need to be really fucking clear with the team that the conversation is a hypothetical brainstorm, and nothing is changing. It’s risky, and I would avoid having those sort of organisational problem solving discussions unless you know your team exceptionally well, and are confident in your ability to reroute the conversation when things get dicey. Tread with care.
Think-to-talk is brilliant for discussing people. This is the style you’ll want to use in your 1:1s when talking about reporting lines, career development, rates and salaries. Slow, methodical, precise conversations are important for setting expectations and not creating confusion and uncertainty about peoples positions within the company.
You need to be aware that the people you’re talking to may simply not be comfortable communicating in your preferred style. Sometimes the other person isn’t that good yet at using your preferred style. This will feel like a drag to you, because you want to use the most efficient style for the situation.
But it’s not about you.
It’s your responsibility to identify what’s going on and compromise. Look for cues that your style isn’t working. When using Talk-To-Think, the other person will be talking less and less, withdrawing from the conversation. When Think-To-Talking, the other person can be frustrated their conversational energy isn’t being matched.
How you are perceived
Sometimes you’ll misjudge the conversation and pick the wrong style.
If you’re using Think-To-Talk with a Talk-To-Thinker you’ll appear haughty, aloof, coldly calculating, surgical, and uncaring.
Talk-to-Thinking with a Think-To-Talker will paint you as scatterbrained, flippant, irrationally vigorous, overbearing, interrupting, and uncaring.
You’ll note that uncaring is shared. An empathy gap is at the root of the miscalibration.
Nobody wants to be perceived as any of these things. Watch for cues, be aware of how people are reacting to what you and others are saying.
Are you slowing the conversation down by not engaging more vigorously? Are you getting too caught up in detail? Switch to Talk-To-Think.
Are you confusing the other person by using lots of potentially conflicting ideas? Are they growing more concerned with every word that comes out of your mouth? Switch to Think-To-Talk.
Be the Talk-To-Think umbrella
People spend a lot of time looking up at what the people above them in the org structure are doing, what they’re saying, who they’re saying it to, and how often they say it. Couple that with a Talk-To-Think communication style up the chain, and it constantly creates and cultivates concerning confusion and uncertainty.
It is damaging as fuck to people in your team because they don’t know how seriously to take ideas from people further up the chain, forcing them into a terrible feedback loop of watching for more cues that have them despairing further.
If you see Talk-To-Think communication coming from above, especially around strategic direction, it’s your duty to sheild your team from that and turn that noise into signal. Distill those opinions into facts, create certainty for your team.
Before you walk into a conversation, you owe it to your people mentally prepare for the style you need to use. This doesn’t have to be an ornate, time consuming ritual - some simple priming is enough.
If you are a Think-To-Talker going into a Talk-To-Think melee, try listening to uptempo trigger music, or going for a walk or quick jog around the block.
Talk-To-Thinker going to the Think-To-Talk doldrums? Listen to downtempo trigger music, or limit sensory inputs by nesting yourself in a quiet dark room.
Have a routine. Prime yourself, have triggers, experiment and change. Where possible integrate some sort of physical activity into the trigger, and avoid screens.
Understanding your communication strengths and weaknesses is one of the hardest but most rewarding things you can do in your management career change.
Diligent and disciplined mastery of this alone puts you heads and shoulders above the rest, and the people you lead will respect you for treating them how they want to be treated.