How to Get Along With Literal Thinkers

Three Parts:Getting Along with Literal ThinkersAltering Your Communication PracticesPracticing Kind and Conscientious Communication

Literal thinkers are people who take into consideration what the words they speak and hear mean in concrete terms. They tend to be straightforward thinkers who see most tasks as a list of steps, apply the most literal meaning to words, and have trouble seeing the big picture because they will focus on the details of each word.[1] Literal thinkers are also unable to consider figurative uses of words.[2] Most people utilize both literal and figurative uses of words, and so it can be frustrating for both parties when you are trying to communicate with a literal thinker. At times, it feels like you're speaking two different languages; however, with a better understanding of how literal thinkers engage words and through some careful communication, it is possible for a person who is capable of using both literal and figurative language to communicate and get along with a literal thinker.

Part 1
Getting Along with Literal Thinkers

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    Realize that different people have different ways of thinking. Each person’s brain operates differently. Literal thinkers aren't trying to think literally; it's simply the way their brains are structured. This can cause as much frustration for a literal thinker as it causes for you.[3] Realize that a literal thinker does not want to be frustrated and that he is not trying to frustrate you either.
    • Think of how you can accommodate a literal thinker, rather than getting upset that he does not think in the same way that you do.
    • Respect and celebrate diverse ways of thinking. We each have our own strengths and challenges. Perhaps one of your friends, a literal thinker, is a great mathematician, while you are a poet. As a society we should celebrate his mathematical brilliance and your artistry with words.
    • Be kind. In addition to celebrating differences, you should be compassionate and generous in your communication with a literal thinker.
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    Identify the strengths of the literal thinker. Because a literal thinker thinks in concrete terms, she is likely to better at understanding rules, utilizing concrete information, visualizing information, and working through thoughts and actions that are rule-based, such as math problems, than many other neurotypical thinkers.[4] With this in mind, it becomes easier for another person to consider ways to communicate with a literal thinker that would play upon those strengths, which would improve the communication process for both parties. When talking to a literal thinker try to identify her personal strengths and use communication practices in line with those strengths.
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    Accept the quirks of a literal thinker. Rather than looking down on a literal thinker for thinking in concrete terms, or for missing nuances, sarcasm, or irony, instead consider these things endearing. A literal thinker engages you in new and challenging ways and may require a little extra work on your part to make sure that the communication between the two of you flows smoothly, but this is an experience that is both positive and informative.
    • For example, instead of making an off-hand sarcastic remark, a literal thinker needs you to phrase your statement in a clear and concise manner without any sarcasm so that he can understand it. This forces you to think about alternate ways of saying something, which in turn, expands your vocabulary and makes you a more effective communicator. This also demonstrates to the literal thinker that you are invested in your communication with him.

Part 2
Altering Your Communication Practices

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    Avoid using figures of speech and overly artistic language. Our language is complex and can be challenging at times for even the best speakers. Literal thinkers think in concrete terms and often focus on “the here and now.”[5] They can miss the nuances of language and subtext, and they can find it difficult to pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues that would otherwise help them decipher the meaning of a statement or conversation.[6] When engaging a literal thinker, remember to use simple language that is straightforward, which explicitly states what you mean. Avoid using:[7]
    • Metaphors
    • Idioms
    • Puns
    • Exaggeration
    • Euphemisms
    • Personification of inanimate objects/Anthropomorphism
    • Sarcasm
    • Hyperbole
    • Figurative phrases
    • Flowery or artistic language
    • Implied assumptions
    • Irony
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    Say what you mean. Be straightforward with your communication. Hints may sail over the head of a literal thinker. Also, avoid complex nonverbal cues or subtexts when conversing with a literal thinker.[8] For example, don't say, "I'm fine," when you're not fine, or cough and look at your watch when you want to let the other party know that you need to be going. Instead say, “I’m not okay,” if you are not fine, or say, “I must be going now,” when it is time for you to leave. Being clear will allow the literal thinker to catch the full message, so that she knows how to respond.
    • Use “I” statements to handle difficult feelings. For example, instead of "You're annoying," say "I have a hard time focusing when you tap your pencil on your desk loudly."
    • Do not use overly abstract language. Instead, use concrete words.[9] For example, instead of saying, “I am under the weather today,” you might say, “I am sick.”
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    Use visual representations to improve communication. Because literal thinkers often translate words into visual images in their minds, you might try to play upon that characteristic to help them comprehend what you are saying.[10] Offering visual support of your words helps to concretize your language for the literal thinker.[11] For example, if you are talking to a literal thinker about your upcoming vacation to a Florida beach and he has never before been to a beach, you might show him images of the beach you are planning to visit to help him better understand what you are saying.
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    Be open to explaining. If the person doesn't get it the first time, try rephrasing your words into more concrete language.[12] Watch the literal thinker’s expression to see if she is still struggling, or if she gets it now. Let the pace of the conversation be fluid, based on each person's needs. Explain what you mean until you are certain that you’ve reached a common understanding.

Part 3
Practicing Kind and Conscientious Communication

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    Avoid sarcasm. State things as they are without relying upon subtext. Often literal thinkers do not understand or even recognize sarcasm. [13][14] Explain things plainly and with kindness. If you wanted to use sarcasm for effect, think of a way that you could rephrase your sarcastic response in different terms that the literal thinker could understand. So, instead of saying "Oh boy, I'm really loving this," when you are waiting in a long line, say something that makes your feelings clear, like, "This is not my idea of fun. I wish we were inside already! "
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    Run interference if you notice a miscommunication between a literal thinker and another person. If someone else is trying to be subtle, and your friend is missing the cues, step in to clear things up. You can make a gentle suggestion to the literal thinker, so that he has the information he requires to know how to respond.
    • Say something like, "Joshua seems like he's in a hurry. Why don't we talk about this later?" or, "Marisol's sarcasm can be pretty subtle. She's not criticizing you, she's criticizing your professor for being so judgmental."
    • It may be worthwhile to take the other person aside and let him know that it helps to be clearer with the literal thinker. For example, "It can be hard for Maya to decipher subtle hints, and I think she was struggling to guess what was on your mind. Next time, it might help for you to tell her outright how you feel."
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    Work on being patient and understanding. Different thinking and learning styles are one part of human diversity, and struggles with nuanced language don't make someone less worthwhile or important. Make it clear that you don't think any less of the literal thinker for having a different style of communication.
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    Recognize that how you communicate is just as important as what you are saying. This is true for when you are talking to anyone — but applies to literal thinkers in particular — kindness and careful communication can make all of the difference.[15] When you show a literal thinker kindness and are careful about how you speak to her, you encourage her to trust you, demonstrate respect for her and her communication style, and enhance your communication interactions with that person.


  • Avoid condescension or talking down to the person.
  • Don’t laugh at misunderstandings.
  • Realize that communication can be stressful for all parties involved.
  • Be patient.


  • Avoid rudeness.
  • Avoid asking if a literal thinker is disabled.
  • Do not criticize the literal thinker.
  • Do not insult the literal thinker.

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