Are You a Circular or a Linear Thinker?

Have you ever been in a conversation and felt like you’ve just been hit by a train?  Or, that the person you are talking to is from another planet, and there might be unicorns and endless time there?  These are extreme cases, but I do sometimes find myself in a discussion where I feel that there are assumptions being made that I don’t agree with or even understand.  It makes it hard to join the discussion.

The root of this disconnect may be that a circular thinker is meeting a linear thinker and they’re not recognizing their difference.  Each of these modes has a set of operating conditions that are intuitively being applied.  When this profound point is not recognized, and people are in different modes, the conversation can go off the rails very quickly.

Here’s a quick quiz to determine your thinking style.  Imagine yourself facing a challenge.  Does column one or column two  feel like the best way to proceed?

Column One                                             Column Two

1. Define the goal                                   1. Gather and welcome everyone affected

2. Develop a strategy                             2. Think about the questions to be asked

3. Make a plan                                       3. Interactively share information

4. Set time lines, costs, tasks                 4. Recognize a pattern, get an idea

5. Activate the plan                                 5. Create a prototype and try it

6. Measure progress                              6. Respond to the information and redesign

Column one is a linear thinking process and column two is circular.  Some of you may have seen yourself more drawn to one mode or the other.  This can be the result of a cultural norm or a personal comfort zone. Scientists often think linearly while artists think circularly; men on average lean towards linear thinking while women are more circular; aboriginal people traditionally think in circles while westerners tend to think linearly.

Possibly you answered “it depends.”  Biologically we are all capable of both styles of thinking and both are highly valuable.

Neuroscience has shown us that there are two fundamental ways we as humans can choose to view the world.  My geology professor, Bob Mason, used to say “there are two kinds of geologists; ones who say this is just like (fill in a deposit name), or ones who say this is nothing like…. The rest are fence sitters, just gathering useless information.”

We are biologically designed to either pull in what we love or push away what is detrimental or a waste of time.  Antonio Damasio‘s research at the University of Southern California found that a huge volume of information reaches our brains every day.  We must attach a love-based or a fear-based emotion to a piece of information for it to become available to us in decision making.  This is why tests are so effective.  We attach a fear based emotion to all the information required to get the grade.  Without the fear it is just a bunch of data.  Another way to learn is to be curious and engaged with the material.  Attaching these love based emotions also embeds information and makes it available for future use.IMG_2536

Fear leads to a linear style of thinking.  It is logical, focused, objective, disciplined, and goal oriented in order to push back against the danger fear has identified for us.  Without this instinct we could not survive.

Circular thinking focuses on pulling in more of what you want.  It is rooted in a drive to be inclusive and transparent – a belief that the answer will come when everyone with an interest is present and a diverse array of thoughts are considered.  It responds to an internal curiosity and subjectively seeks to find what is meaningful and stay aligned with that through a series of course adjustments.  WIthout circular thinking we could not change, feel contentment or develop relationships.

This blog is going to explore how knowing you are applying circular or linear thinking can make a difference to you in big and small ways.

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41 thoughts on “Are You a Circular or a Linear Thinker?

    • This is so helpful. I’m a law student getting ready to take the bar in July and I have been having the most difficult time in one of writing classes. There’s a fear based component of the bar exam and that is time. I kept telling myself that if I could just figure out what the examiners are looking for then I can give it to them. I know this because I love to be mentally challenged but only when it’s fair. This article is teaching me that I keep thinking linear bc of the fear instilled by the time constraint. I am actively trying to pursue circular thinking and how to keep it on during these exams.

      • I hope your exam went well. I too am trying to hone my circular skills. Linear seems to be all around us. I think the world is ready to balance it with some circular and the people who learn it early on will bring a great gift.

    • I guess I’m weird. I seem to be a combination of both. I think very logically, and cannot force myself to move on until I have an answer to something. I’m very curious about most thing I encounter and ask a lot of questions, sometimes too many! I don’t have a creative bone in my body. I’m very guarded, yet quite open, if that makes sense.

      Leah

      • You are probably a INFJ MBTI type. That matches the traditional description of one, and I should know because I am one.

      • I noticed that the Myers Briggs is based on pairs of qualities. I suggest the pairs are circular and linear counterparts. Hey, this would make a great blog. Stay tuned for an exploration of how Myers Briggs relates to circular and linear thinking (Two Ways of Knowing).

      • I think it does make sense. We all can be circular and linear, just not at the same time. Because the operating conditions of one style of thinking are the complete opposite of the other it creates this pendulum swing feeling where we completely flip from one world to another. I am similar to you in that I am just as likely to default to one way of knowing or the other. To people who spend most of their time in circular or linear mode it can seem hard to keep track of. This is one reason why I love the Two Ways of knowing model. Once we recognize and value both ways of knowing, we can stand back and appreciate the differences.

  1. I was looking for a cultural relationship in relation to circular and linear thinking. If once can related circular or linear thinking to one culture. Are westerns prone to linear thinking?

    • I would say YES. Western business is very linear, an governance. I do work with First Nations in Canada and they are often finding ways to balance circular and linear – or at least struggling with the possibility.

  2. This nicely summarizes my daily struggle at work. There appears to be a strong connection with the old distinction between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ software development.

  3. I had a good friend tell me that I was very linear, and another good friend tell me I was the most non linear person they had ever met. What the heck? I had never even bothered to look into whether I was or was not linear until I stumbled across your article. I identify with column 2 much more than column 1. Curious how two friends would come to two different conclusions.

    • Maybe you are one of those people who can be comfortable in both thinking styles. That would be very lucky. I think ultimately we could all be working to build our comfort in both to really handle whatever life sends to us.

  4. I’m curious. I am not the organized linear thinker , yet also definantly not the circular butterfly as the description feels.
    Do you have some tests that are available to the public that would determine this?
    This makes so much more sense to me than Right brain, Left brain . Or creative vs scientific based thought processes.
    Thank you for sharing this with us and I do look forward to a link from you that will take me to something that I am able to actually apply!

    Amy

    • Hi Amy, I have been so wrapped up in writing my book and putting together exactly what you suggested – a quiz that will help people see if they are in their linear or circular thinking mode – that I neglected to check for comments. Book is almost done and I will endeavour to put out as much practical info in blogs very soon.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. This is interesting. Fascinating! I read this post after getting home from a meeting today, where another meeting attendee kept asking me if I was okay….I asked why, and she said she noticed I kept going back to the first page of the presentation, when others including her were enmeshed in studying more than a dozen pages that followed page one, I told her that there was no reason to read all the other pages, That we were there to make a decision and a strategy and plan then find funding, and that everything we needed was on the first page. After reading this, it’s apparent that we were in different thinking modes. What’s more interesting, is that I use both linear and circular styles depending on the situation. Mike Z

    • Great story! I use both sides too. When I am in linear mode I am thinking in terms of either/or. I am focused on the goal and filtering everything as on track or off track. Get me in circular thinking and I can intuit what others are feeling and all I care about is the meaning behind what we are doing. I think the future will be about being conscious of when we are circular and linear – then we can make choices.

  6. I have two children, one circular thinker and one linear…both boys. I agree with what you have written here and often wish this topic would be more often considered by grade-school teachers. It might help avoid confusion and frustration if teachers were more conscious of how their students processed information. And then, they may be able to redirect children to different modes of thinking depending upon the situation. Circular thinking is great for problem solving, but eventually, it seems best, to move to linear thinking, chose a path and stick with it until it produces or fails.

  7. Really helpful! I have had many people say I am really linear, even though I identify with column 2. Maybe I am just lazy. I think I am really a logical circular, and can apply logic to abstract situations, enabling me to connect with both linears and circulars, given that they are equally logical.

  8. This is a great start. I just realized yesterday that the combination of linear thinking and a bit of privilege (in this case male privilege) turns what I think is an exchange of ideas and information into conflict. I had interactions with two linear thinkers in the last few days who were not interested in my understanding them, or in actually getting a complete picture; rather they wanted to get their words out. They are both near and dear to me, so it was quite a shock to my system, but a great lesson.

    Is there a forum where the implications of linear and circular thinking are explored?

    • I so agree. Two linear thinkers often find themselves pushing for the most talking time. Best way I find for changing the dynamics is really listening and trying to find something I can genuinely agree with. They are often ready to do the same in kind at that point. Or at least I had the chance to grow from what they said.

      A forum is a great idea. I will look into that.

      Thank you for commenting!

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  10. Wow! That is so cool. It’s just as I imagined but to see it in print and by someone with more insight than myself, it is very helpful. I met a lady 18 years ago who described herself as “linear” and I have not forgotten the statement but never really took the time to understand it. Thanks.

  11. Great post. The concept of circular and linear thinking is very useful to apply to many different situations. For example, the distinction between a “leader” (having a broader ‘circular’ vision) and “manager” (administering the ‘linear’ time line) came to my mind. Thanks and all the best

  12. Emotionally unstable people have fixed beliefs, they can hold several sets of contradictory beliefs. They own Multiple sets of ridged linear thoughts, a few delusions added are added in due to their flawed perception & lack of empathy, paradoxically these sets conflict.

    Dyslexia is the ‘bigger picture neurology’ breaking down elements & working backward from perception which is intuitive. Being highly sensitive to environment & visual detail equates to
    Imagination. Imagination is the most important factor in critical thinking it’s abstract.

    Cluster B has no imagination, replaced by an intense singular focus.
    Dyslexic the intuitive ‘whole picture’ imaginative.

    The Neurological extremes of thinking style.

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    • This is a great article. It seems quite brave to acknowledge there are trends of men and women in their thinking style. I think this is true because women are comfortable with their feminine nature and men with the masculine side of themselves. There will be exceptions because we all have a masculine and feminine side. Today, the man who has possession of his feminine abilities, as well as his masculine, is often the leadership super=star, credited with high emotionally intelligence.

  14. Circular has negative connotations associated with circular reasoning and logical fallacy. Maybe a better term would be appropriate. Iterative thinking, critical creativity.. ?

    • This is a really interesting point. Circular has negative connotations, in my mind, when we are in a linear thinking mode where we see the world through an either/or lens. If something is not logical it is bad. Circular sees wandering in random directions and considering the possibility of the illogical a fantastic and playful part of creativity and the iterative process (as you pointed out). SO, do we choose language for the circular that is acceptable to the linear? Or do we choose the word that is most comfortable when you are rooted in your circular mindset?

  15. Is circular thinker the same as lateral thinker? I struggle with understanding how I think as I can get pretty uncomfortable if there is no defined plan yet don’t always take the time to plan, such that I avoid getting caught in situations that ultimately prove stressful because I thought I can wing it.

    • I know what you mean! This is one of the advantages of 2WK. When this happens, I ask myself, did I wing it because I wanted to inject creativity or room for relationship building into the situation? These results legitimately require the open curiosity of circular thinking, where you experience each moment and say “yes, and…”. Having a plan would kill these potentials.

      If however, I didn’t make a plan because I was avoiding something that felt bigger than me, or denying my reality like an ostrich with my head in the sand I am in the shadow side of linear thinking. In linear mode, power is the ability to assert our will even against the will of others (or other factors). The guiding principle for applying this power ‘is not too much, not too little’ (I call it the Goldilocks Range). The sweet spot is found in the middle. Too much is when we micromanage or cause unnecessary collateral damage. Too little is when we avoid, blame or deny. If we find ourselves in the too little action region, we need to define the challenge in concrete terms and break the path to success down into manageable steps. We can always handle one step at a time. If not, break the steps down into smaller bites. Eventually you will find a task just beyond your current abilities and each time you achieve it your confidence will grow. It is facing the whole challenge that swamps us with fear and results in avoidance until all we can do is wing it.

      I could go on and on on this subject, I find it so interesting. I’ll just say one more thing. It might be worthwhile to ask yourself if you are winging it because you are resistant for some reason. This is the benefit of circular thinking again. Ask the question and follow wherever it takes you. You might get some really interesting insight. I have learned I want to do it but I am self-sabboatging because no one in my family does that kind of thing. Or, I am winging it because it is pulling me away from something I really want to do. Or, I am exhausted and I need to self-care before I get back on the treadmill. All good information!

      Oh, and yes, lateral thinking is a form of circular thinking.

  16. Interesting. I start off linearly and get quite serious about doing that. Until most of the holes are filled in and then I get bored with the whole sequential thing and want to go circular on things. Frustrates even me. Men at work usually find it “amusing” or disconcerting. I’ve had a really bad history in school, college, grad school, and continuing ed because teachers and other students seem to whiz right down their linear path of knowledge and I’m disrupting things by asking questions (which often irritates people) and feeling like something is going on that I just don’t get. I read a lot and try to learn new things all the time, but application of that knowledge is pretty difficult for me.

  17. I just looked at the chart you shared. Linear thinking is for learning new things. Circular thinking is for solving problems. I’m currently trying to improve my photography. I think photography IS about solving problems. There’s (in my opinion) no one path to a goal. But all the courses and tutorials I’ve seen use the linear approach.

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