The Positive Energy Workplace

The Art of External Processing in Leadership

I have a client I absolutely adore. She has a heart of gold. Intentions to the moon and back. A desire to make people feel valued and cared about. A commitment to transparency and open communication. And a hunger to lead well.

All of these qualities are fantastic. Admirable. Moving. They're some of the core qualities of effective empathetic leadership.

And like all good qualities, and strengths, there are often "weaknesses" that mirror the strengths. These might be blind spots, things we can do better, or simply places that need attention and improvement. Whatever the case, they're ALL gifts -- they're what make us unique, human, and endearing -- for without them we'd be perfect and (dare I say?) incredibly boring.

So what's hers? She's an "external processor". Like many of us, present company included, she "thinks out loud". A lot. And while this in itself is not necessarily a "bad" thing, it can have unintended impact. For example, done unintentionally, it leaves her people confused, it can take the air out of the room when she's worried about something, it sends people down the wrong path, and in its worst case, it deflates morale. All of these outcomes of course are completely unintended. They're the last thing she'd want to do to anyone on her team. But it happens. And it can all be easily resolved.

There is an "art" to external processing. Is this you? Do you work with someone who struggles with this? If so, read on...


First it's worth knowing, on both ends, common reasons and intentions behind external processing. We do things for a reason. Generally everything we do has some kind of positive intent behind it. (By the way, if you can hold this as an assumption, your relationships and communication will go further faster and with much more fun.) So if we're assuming good here, what might these reasons be?

  • A value of transparency
  • A desire for connection and alignment
  • A need to be heard, seen, understood
  • A need for fear or pain to be remedied
  • Or, simply being unaware of its presence or impact (super common)

If you can relate to any of the above, great. You now have a deeper level of awareness than you had before as to WHY you might do this. The first step is awareness that you actually ARE doing it, the second step is awareness as to why. Awareness is 70% of the battle. Doing something with that new found awareness the other 30%. (In this case that "action" might be to self-manage and/or get those needs met intentionally.)


Thinking Out Loud: There's the kind that's about "thinking out loud" -- working through a project or system out loud, bringing colleagues into your process, etc. This is all about information sharing. And usually this is very helpful external processing.

Best Practice: Name that you're processing, stop and pay attention to impact, check in with the group you're working with... is the style, pace, and tone of your processing working for them?

"Fire, Ready, Aim!": Then there is what I think of as "fire, ready, aim" processing -- pointing your team in multiple directions as you work through the many different possibilities, different tasks the team members should take on, what might happen, what might not, and "Go!" -- all while just "thinking" it through. This processing is confusing to the team, sets people on potentially many wrong paths, and generally leaves people frustrated.

Best Practice: Take a step back and see the action steps below.

"Doom and Gloom": And finally, there is what I think of as "doom and gloom" external processing -- where you're worried about something or not completely understanding even what you're worrying about, but you're feeling anxiety about it, and you just let it all... unload. Yep... You let it all go.... free. And it often starts like this: "Well.... hmmm... I'm not sure about this because what if this, and how do I know that this is going to work, and what about this, and maybe we'll fail, and this could go really wrong, and I'm not sure why this is making me feel so uncomfortable, but, this is really stressing me out. But good job!! Go team!"

Been there? Been on a team where this has happened? (Note: I've both done and witnessed this kind of processing -- it's not pretty and no one feels better for it during or after.) What makes this one especially toxic is doing it at the END of a meeting or presentation, or after someone has just put something really great on the table that they're really excited about and everyone in the room has aligned on it, but you. My experience is that this style of "external processing" does the most "damage".

Best Practice: Take a deep breath, notice your body and any angst that's riding up, breath, take a step back, and see the action steps below.


All of these are remediable with a bit of awareness, intention, and positive action. Here is a 5 step process for making sure your processing has the best impact possible.These 5-steps are best applied to the first two styles offered above. At the end I've offered a more intensive list for the "doom and gloom" processor.

  1. Notice you're doing it, and be clear about your intention behind it. What type of processing are you doing here?
  2. Be intentional about it - watch the energy you're bringing to the table here. Is it hurried, scurried, chaotic, out of control? Or is it grounded, present, and in service of?
  3. If it IS intentional processing,name the intent:"I'm going to think out loud for a bit here, this is just part of our team's creative process, I want to share my thinking and how I'm coming to this decision, we're not making any decisions off of this, I just want to share my thoughts and get your input, etc...Cool? Cool."
  4. Be aware of your impact, tone, pacing... Pay attention to your impact on the room/on the other person. Don't be afraid to STOP talking, take a step back, get feedback, gather your thoughts, and get clear.
  5. Close out clean and clear. Make sure before you end the meeting that you have clear agreements about what the outcomes and decisions are. Who's "owning" what. What the next steps are. Etc. The name of the game is clarity and responsibility for impact.

The more intensive formula for "doom and gloom" processing temptations...

  1. Catch yourself. Notice what's happening in your body. Where you're feeling anxiety or angst. Where you're feeling panicked or freaked out or worried. If this is going on for you, if you feel rushed, panicked, etc... Stop.
  2. Take a step back. Breathe. Breathe again. Count to 10 if you must. This is a place for self-management and big time awareness of impact.
  3. Get clear on what's really up for you. What is the core thing that has you concerned? IF you can identify this in the moment, and speak to it in a powerful manner, then speak to it. (Remember, every complaint has an uncommunicated request underneath it -- this may be a helpful tool to use here.)
  4. IF YOU CAN'T productively articulate what's's okay. Better to be clear and intentional. (An ounce of pro-activity and self-management is worth 10 pounds of cleaning stuff up later. Sir, step away from the processing.)
  5. Take a "time out", leave the room to go and process externally on your own or with a trusted colleague/coach/peer. Let yourself process fully and freely - just don't do it in front of your team... yet. Get clear on what your concern is. (I've found writing myself a list of what's up can be highly effective here in helping me sort through the muck.)
  6. And, if you need more time than a quick "time out"... tell the team "This is interesting, I want to give it some thought and come back with some well formed questions and feedback. Can we continue this conversation later?" Then go back to step five.
  7. Circle back up... Once you've processed through what's really bugging you, where you're overreacting, where you have solid concerns, etc. You'll want to frame them out in a productive and helpful manner so that you and your team can pro-actively and effectively address them.


GIFTS: The angst that leads to external processing is a gift. Pay attention to it. There's a good reason you're having a physical and emotional reaction to "it"... Your job as a leader is to unpack what that is, deliver it in a productive manner, and be responsible for your impact.

ASSUMING GOOD: In yourself and others. Look for the positive intent behind what's happening on your team (that might be creating angst for you), what's being said, and even what's happening for the external processor (if you happen to be on the receiving end).

PARTNERING: No need to resist it or make any of this wrong; partner with it and make it your friend. When we partner with our angst, or our challenges, and let them serve and support us versus drive and override us, our external processing can become an intentional art for effective leadership.

Happy processing! // axc



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