Qualitative, Intuitive Thinkers vs Quantitative, Data-Based Thinkers: How Not to Make Each Other Crazy

I've been thinking . . .

It was a chain of thoughts this morning, that started with a post at Seth’s blog. I so agree with what he said, but I should warn you, this post is not about his content. His post title got me thinking about the ways that people think.

This must be hard

Seth’s title, “This must be hard,” reminded me of a woman I once worked for. Joan believed that all good things must be difficult. She often said that anyone who achieved a 3.9 grade point went to an easy school — no exceptions.

Joan sought out the hard road. She liked hard data. She strove to have her “ducks in a row.” Her details never fell through the cracks. Her entire knowledge of gut feeling was how to spell it. Working smart in Joan’s world meant taking the easy way out.

Joan was mostly a quantitative, black and white, data-based thinker.

I was an intuitive, “seat of the pants,” qualitative thinker. At times, Joan’s boxes, details, and ducks all lined up made me crazy.

Thoughts of Joan led me to remember a comment made on Bloggy Question 31. in which Chris Cree said, ” . . . Life doesn’t always fit into a tidy calculated box.”

Chris made the comment of a qualitative, intuitive thinker.

That single sentence would have made Joan crazy. No facts, no concrete to support it. She’d say it was too easy.

Folks who prefer one way of thinking often frustrate folks who prefer the other. Gosh wouldn’t it be nice if everyone thought like we do? Well, not really. Both kinds of thinking are important to making great decisions.

No one seems to dispute the fact that every person has a preference, or that we all can do both — we just don’t like one nearly as much as the other. Still we need both.

How Not to Make Each Other Crazy

The trick is knowing when to be intuitive and when to get to hard data. It’s figuring out how to work together without driving each other crazy — knowing when a situation calls for folks who are good at one or the other.

It works a lot like writing — go for ideas, then edit and test them.

Qualitative thinking is a valuable skill when we need ideas, possibilities, and solutions. Creativity needs the room that qualitative thinking allows. Even qualitative numbers — somewhere around a billion — work when we’re trying to imagine or wonder our way out of old assumptions into new options.

Once we’ve gathered possibilities with potential — likely suspects — that’s when we turn to the switch to quantitative thinking. Move over to the black and white, gather folks who think well in concrete, hard data terms.

Quantitative thinking in binary black and white is a valuable skill when we need to test and validate ideas, assumptions, and action plans. Getting grounded in reality needs the “yes or no,” the “go or no go” of solid numbers and “best and worst case” scenarios.

Two kinds of thinking challenge each other to make an idea and test it. One to imagine, one to validate — that gets the best of both minds, both kinds of thinking.

When I figured that out, I began to value folks who think differently than I do, It became a pleasure working with them. They like to do the things that I find frustrating and painful — herding ducks into a row.

Imagine or calculate it. It doesn’t have to be hard. Two kinds of thinking beat one.

Take a look at who makes you crazy. What does that person do well that you really hate to do?

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  1. says

    Brilliant post, Liz. In reality I am one of those folks who works well in either type of thinking. But I excel on the intuitive side.

    I remember working a problem in the simulator in flight school. It was a submarine hunting exercise and apparently I had deviated from procedures significantly. The instructor didn’t want to let us waste too much time so he froze the simulation, came in and told me to point on the screen where I thought the submarine was.

    Without hesitating I stabbed my finger at the screen and said, “It’s here.”

    He shook his head, went out , turned the simulation back on, and we “killed” the sub in short order.

    I intuitively knew the solution to the problem even though the data I had was significantly flawed because I botched the procedures that time. (And I got good at the procedures quickly after that little episode.)

  2. says

    I agree with Chris, great post.

    I’m probably a combination of both people. I have to have a long range plan and big ideas with goals in mind. Then day to day I work from the seat of my pants making decisions quickly about what to put in my blog, as an example. I enjoy having every day be different but still knowing where I want to be in 6 months and having a plan to get there.

    Off topic-I got a link in the New York Times today. It’s amazing how much a little link like that can drive traffic. It’s about time too considering how many times I have linked to them.

  3. says

    Hi Chris,
    I understand exactly what you’re saying. I believe that we pick up information from doing things, tiny details and small fragments. I call that “inituitive detail.” I think it’s as important as measurements. In fact in an emergency I would defer to it every time. :)

  4. says

    Hi Roy!
    Congrats on the NYTimes link!

    I think we’re all capable of both kinds of thinking. I find I have to walk around a bit to transition from one to the other, just to clear my head, but I like them both. In a pinch though, we all know I’d give up the details to someone who’s better at them. :)

  5. says

    And along these same lines, I think a good leader is one who recognizes what qualities they lack and then surrounds herself with people who have do have them. Synergy.

  6. says

    I’ve often found that the “This must be hard”* people tend to get mad with the really smart people who do things like, say, advanced calculus or physics easily. They’ll refuse to believe that some people don’t have to study really hard for everything. “He must be doing all that homework.” I’ve got friends who breezed through some of the hardest Ivy League schools.

    *see also the “If it tastes good spit it out” dieter camp. I’ll just present the french as a counterexample and leave it at that.

  7. says

    Hi Michelle,
    Yep, I’m with you on that! If everyone looks like me, then we have plenty of the same skills and plenty of the same deficiencies. Not good, no , no not good. :)

  8. says

    Joan must be related to one of my old managers. A developer-turned-entrepreneur, he was the most black-and-white thinker I’ve ever met. Being a writer, I spent a lot of time working through the often-creative gray areas. Conversations between the two of us were inordinately frustrating; while I learned and assimilated some really valuable things from his bag of tricks, it’s unlikely he ever learned from me. He knew everything. Period.

    Three years later, I worked for a marketing director who made me look like my old boss. He was great at the ideas and grand visions, but left something to be desired on the particulars. We made a decent team because once a project was in play, we stayed out of each other’s way. We each took something away from the other’s bag of tricks, and I learned more from him than I ever learned in a business course.

    Although I’m by no means trying to make a sweeping generalization here — because I have no doubt that there are folks out there who are exceptions to what I’ve observed — I’ve encountered too few quantitative folks who are willing to learn from the qualitative folks but have found loads of the latter willing to learn something from the former.

  9. says

    Yeah, Candice. You’ve got the lady nailed to a T. There was resentment there. She also didn’t promote someone for a reason . . . the reason? The person wanted the job. You were supposed to be “nurtured to want it, not actually figure it was good for your career on your own. :)

  10. says

    Hi Whitney,
    You make a good point about folks learning from folks. I wonder if that is set up by a school system biased toward black and white answers rather than deep thinking, or creative problem solving. Schools in the USA anyway are — by and large — incredibly linear, empirical, quantitative in nature — the fault of the system that rewards on test scores. Discovery occurs when we have time for it or when a special teacher feels strongly that it needs to be there.

  11. says

    Congrats on the link Big Roy!

    Liz, on the flip side, I’ve been known spew a laundry list of facts at my bride as “proof” for some decision and she’ll give me a “whatever you say, Spock” response. She says that sometimes I can be a little robotic in my ways.

    Go figure.

    Oh, and I noticed on the post that Seth’s turned his comments back on. When did that happen?

  12. says

    Hi Chris!
    I think we all go deep on facts that we find interesting or topics that we want to make happen. We learn to gather facts in our favor when we’re kids to beat our parents. :)

    I didn’t notice Seth had his comments on. Hmmm Have to check that out.

  13. says

    Oops! Obviously I didn’t read any. Just read the article and thought “Oh, look. Commenty things. How strange to see them here.”

    I keep up with his blog via feed and rarely go there because he doesn’t have a dynamic lively comment section like the Queen SOB around here does. :)

  14. says

    A great article Liz, though I don’t think it is right to classify all quantitative thinking as “binary black and white”. For example, statistics can quantify any shade of grey you want. Digital computers work only by virtue of careful engineering to ensure that a continuum of voltage levels are managed properly, and if used beyond limits of speed, temperature and voltage they will fail.

    It seems curious to me that a “qualitative thinker” should attempt to pigeon hole us into qualitative or quantitative thinkers. I’m sure there are more ways to describe how we think.

    Which reminded me of the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles. I have a bias for being a reflector and a theorist, and less towards being an activist or pragmatist.

    Anyway, I Googled ‘thinking styles’ and found a reference to Professor Anthony Gregorc who says we each have favorite thinking styles: Concrete Sequential (=pragmatists?), Concrete Random (=activists?), Abstract Random (=reflectors?), and Abstract Sequential (=theorists?).

    But http://www.thinkingstyles.co.uk goes much further and identifies 26 dimensions of thinking, in three groups.

    And Google shows many more ideas on this topic. But the point is that trying to quantify this in just two dimensions is wrong. Even a left / right brain test will put us somewhere on a sliding scale.

  15. says

    I agree with you. We’re all many kinds of thinkers –abstract and concrete, linear and sequential too. Also i know that quatitative arguments often fall into the gray, this was merely a blog post look — a broad brush stroke of how we drive each other crazy, and usually those ideas are based in stereotypes and generalizations.

  16. says

    Thanks both Derek and Kent for making sure that everyone knows that no one is inside a box in the way that we think. I of all people wouldn’t want be there. :) I like folks to have plenty of space to think all kind of thoughts.

    Kent, special thanks for the links!

  17. V Ebert says

    Thank you for your message. It is nice to see that there are people who have “actually assessed the two minds” before setting judgement. I am an intuitive thinker. That is: I will attempt to assess all levels/areas of a situation before presenting my determination. I will especially utilize this tool with people. Seldom will I treat a person based on what someone else has said… I allow everyone the benefit of the doubt – long enough to learn each individual with my own mind. I am disappointed however, when those who base life primarily on surfaced data alone, will instantly assume intuitive thinkers to be crazy or lacking in reality. So true, the world is in need of both style thinkers. Findings throughout history have established this very truth.

    Current Example: The two kidnapped boys who were found by policemen in Missouri. Those policemen utilized first and foremost intuition in locating these children, and it paid off! ~v~

  18. says

    Hi V,
    Thank you for thoughtful (and intuitive) comment. I find it hard to believe that people who focus first on empirical data often discount their own experience — what I call their intuitive detail. We carry so much knowledge that is not hard-coded and are able to pick up other information by perception of patterns and paying attention.

    It’s silly to discount a source of any kind.

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