Monday, May 11, 2009 by Dave Blum

My grandpa was a quiet man.  Born and raised in Romania, he arrived in New York City in the early 1900’s and made a nice career for himself as a Manhattan dentist.  But he didn’t talk much — except for when he was playing gin rummy.  With his thick Romanian accent, Grandpa Zachary would keep a running commentary of everything that was happening in the game:

“Hmm, he’s picked up a three of diamonds and thrown away a four of diamonds.  He must be keeping threes.” Or…

“He’s taken a king of clubs and now he’s taking the jack.  He must have a high club straight.”

And of course, he was usually right…to my eternal frustration!

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What Grandpa was doing was very clever. Rather than employing some kind of manipulative mind game, I think he was simply employing a time-tested problem-solving technique:  externalizing.  By thinking out loud, he was helping himself think through the issues at hand.

Interestingly, externalizing is also an important teaching technique. According do David Straus, author of “How to Make Collaboration Work”, you often experience key learning moments when you have someone think out loud in front of you, “sharing his or her strategies while working heuristically on a problem.”  In other words, you often learn best when you can observe a “person’s mind dancing around a problem, trying a particular strategy, seeing whether it works and then trying something different.”

As a “heuristic strategy”, you might want to try this sometime. The next time you’re out on a corporate team challenge or an office team building activity, or simply at a workplace meeting with a peer, ask your colleague (or team building facilitator) to talk out their thinking process.  It’s likely you’ll learn the content better…and flatter the other person, as well.

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