Type the title of this post into Google and you get 275 million results. Scroll through the pages and you’ll find most are links to the hit song by Ed Sheeran — videos, fan pages, or stories about the 100 million dollar copyright lawsuit filed by the estate of the Ed Townsend, co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s 1970’s R&B classic, “Let’s Get it On.” Apparently, the two songs sound the same. I can’t hear it, but what do I know?
(By the way, this last May, the courts found in Sheeran’s favor)
Long before the music and controversy, the term “thinking out loud” referred to a method used by scientists to understand human behavior. Together with colleagues, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson — the expert on expertise — found that asking people to “think aloud” while they were engaged in a given set of tasks revealed reliable differences between the best, or “top” performers, and others (1).
I used a version of the method when teaching my youngest to drive a few summers ago. He was 18 at the time. Having grown up in a big city with ready access to mass transit, he hadn’t felt the need to get a license at 16. He still wasn’t feeling it when his mother and I forced the issue. He was heading out of state for college. Knowing how to drive, we believed, was an important life skill.
Anyway, “thinking out loud” wasn’t the first way I approached the task. Rather, I gave commands, “slow down,” “turn your blinker on,” “stop following so closely.” And when I wasn’t telling him what to do, I was explaining why he needed to do it — respectively, “the speed limit is …,” “the law says you need to signal 100 feet ahead of a turn,” and “hey, if that car ahead stops abruptly, you’re going to rear end it.” Neither of these strategies proved particularly helpful. Indeed, they only served to heighten tensions.
The proverbial “light in my head” finally turned on when my son responded to yet another of my explanations with, “I know the rule Dad … but how do I do it?”
Important distinction. Not what. Now why. How. As aerospace engineer and science communictor, Destin Sandlin is fond of saying, “knowledge is not understanding.”
The challenge for me — and anyone else that’s been doing a particular activity for a long time — is being able to recall the “how.” At the point I was teaching my son I’d been driving for nearly 5 decades! In truth, most of my behavior beind the wheel was and is done unconsciously. The same is true of getting out of bed, walking downstairs and making coffee in the morning. Little conscious thought is involved. I just do it.
“Automaticity,” as its known among researchers of deliberate practice, is both good and bad. On the plus side, it frees up our limited cognitive resources so we can attend to other, more important matters. The downside, as Anders Ericsson once pointed out, is the loss of conscious control over our actions means, “People … are no longer able to make specific intentional adjustments to them (p. 694, 2).
Take a moment and reread that last sentence.
Bottom line: if you want to improve your performance, you will need to first regain conscious control over your behavior. It’s why, in Better Results: Using Deliberate Practice to Improve Therapeutic Effectiveness, one of the first exercises we recommend is creating a schematic or blueprint for how you do therapy sufficiently detailed so another practitioner could understand and replicate it (see page 29).
Truth be told, however, when the book was released in 2020, feedback about this exercise was swift and negative. Therapists struggled to describe their work. Not what they did or why, but how. Generally, the results were either too vague (e.g., conduct an assessment, listen and be empathic, suggest a “thought log”) or so granular most got lost in the details and gave up.
We modified the exercise considerably, offering additional details and advice in The Field Guide to Better Results: Evidence-based Exercises to Improve Therapeutic Effectiveness released just this year (see pages 18-20). Combined with “thinking out loud,” most are finding the activity much easier to complete.
Returning to teaching my son to drive. In place of explanations and commands, I simply began verbalizing my thoughts, observations, and behaviors in real time as we drove together. To wit:
- The sign indicating a stop ahead is typically 500 feet from the intersection. I’m reducing pressure on the accelerator.
- The car in front of me is about 30 feet away. I check the speedometer. My speed 55 mph. I lift my foot from the accelerator now. At 80 feet, I put my foot back on the accelerator. I maintain the same speed.
- Distance is closing between me and the car ahead. I look over my left shoulder. I signal. I look over my left shoulder. No car. I maintain my speed. I slowly turn the wheel to the left about 1 inch. Now I check my blinker. Its still on. Next time I should short stroke the signal rod.
The difference was remarkable. Much less tension and, over time, gradual improvement in my son’s driving.
The application to therapy can be just as straightforward. Instead of attempting to create a map from memory, record a couple of sessions. Then, as you listen, talk out loud, stopping the recording to describe your observations, the thoughts you were having at the time, and the behaviors you exhibted as a result.
As described in Better Results and The Field Guide, creating a detailed blueprint will make it easier to target and change the specific aspects of your performance required for improved results. No worries if you’ve not read the books. Links to the two podcasts provide a fairly thorough review!
OK, that’s it for now. Always interested in your comments.
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D.
Director, International Center for Clinical Excellence
P.S.: We will be applying the principles of deliberate practice at the upcoming “Training of Trainers.” Over three-days, we’ll help you develop and improve your training and presentation skills. Join colleagues from around the world for this once, every-other-year, training event. Click here, or the image below, for more information or to register.