Can literal thinkers and abstract thinkers ever really communicate with each other effectively?

by Niki Pocock


I have discovered the hardest part of communications: literalists. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m always up for a challenge, but it has taken me many years to realize that not everyone’s brain is wired like mine.

I think this is the most evident in project development and brainstorming, arguably the most crucial stage of an endeavor. I tend to think in broad terms and can envision everything I want to do: the end product, including all of its elements and steps to get there, in a nice, neat package in my mind. The challenge is to communicate the exact dimensions, color, taste, smell and texture of the package to everyone else.

Maybe I’m the weird one (wouldn’t be the first time). Maybe I’m the one with the mis-wired brain. I’ll use my husband as an example because he is a software computer engineer. (I’m not one to perpetuate on stereotypes, but he is a bit literal and tends to think only in zeros and ones.) If I have a project in my mind, I might bounce my ideas off of him. (If nothing else, he gives brutally honest feedback, and I love him for it.) If I say I’m thinking of getting children to attend a press conference to reveal a new healthy lifestyle initiative for kids (completely made-up event), he would say, “Yeah, but you should get your executive director to attend, too.” In my mind, that is a given.

Same thing if I’m presenting a project about a new website design and I display a proposed design with gibberish filler text. I (more than once from more than one company) am asked, “Why do you have the text in Latin? I think it would be better in English. And shouldn’t the text give visitors info about (insert client topic)?” Same thing with just showing one page of a site. “I think we should change it to have more of a variety of text and pictures so it isn’t the same exact thing on each page.” Also, both givens in my mind.

Or say I work on a rebranding effort and present a general scheme, proposed ads, proposed billboards, business cards, etc. I will always get the question, “But how will I fit all the stuff from the ads on our memos?”

These people are not stupid. They are actually rather brilliant. So why can’t they see beyond the exact image in front of them? I’m about 99.9 percent sure it is me, but seriously: should you really present everything—down to the location of garbage cans at an event and every word on a website—in order to get an idea across? What happens if the entire idea is axed? Do you do it all over again?


  1. Abcd

    I have just started to understand what is abstraction? I don’t know, if I would be able to think this way all the time. I am trying to find my answers in psychology or mathematics. I don’t know if I can keep up. Maths is hard and psychology is boring. Let’s hope I get wired your way!

  2. Michael Sisler

    These people (me included) are perfectly capable of reading between the lines, but form habits of purposely not doing so because it reduces the margin of error to a perfect 0% and takes the responsibility of the interpreter (placing it on the speaker). If everyone listening was expected to take everything literally, and all speakers were forced to translate into literal terms, there would be a 0% chance in miscommunication.

    Try looking up the difference between inductive and deductive logic. You will find that inductive science like psychology, philosophy, and statistics usually attract abstract thinkers, because to these people 95% is just as good as 100% and more practical.
    Math and physics attract deductive thinkers. These people can be thought of as “perfectionists”. They prefer theoretical goals and consider practical goals as a pre-accepted failure. They like 100%.

    To these people, because there is only one way to take something literally; it should be universally done. This would take the listener out of the equation, and place all the responsibility on the speaker.

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