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Are You a Slow Processor?

Dealing with the verbal virtuoso when you're a tad slower (but still smart).

Key points

  • Quick access to language is a form of intelligence.
  • Folks who process slower may be as smart, if not smarter, than those who talk fast.
  • Sometimes, those who think and talk fast can use it as a weapon.
  • Relational intelligence is far more important than being quick-witted.
Zamrznuti tonovi/Shutterstock
Source: Zamrznuti tonovi/Shutterstock

Brad's in a heated argument with his girlfriend Annabelle, and she cuts him off mid-sentence. He thinks a bit slower, and struggles to find the right response. Sound familiar? Brad's left scrambling intellectually while Annabelle's already framing her rebuttal.

People like Annabelle make the rest of us feel dumb. But is she really smarter? The answer is probably not.

Personality is a composite of strengths and weaknesses, and verbal virtuosity is one strength among many. The fact that your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife or husband, friend or sibling cuts you off may show an immaturity in relationships, despite all their verbal virtuosity.

That 'need to score a win' isn't a sign of healthy communication.

We all like winning arguments. Healthy people prioritize relationships.

Anna Freud and Intelligence

Years ago, Anna Freud described the many development lines in maturation. Some lines of development are social, some are intellectual, some musical, some perceptual, some athletic. Some are language-based. Just as there are people who can visualize things in three dimensions—think of artists or mechanics—there are also people who can manage their language with ease.

It's a developmental strength and form of intelligence.

Conversely, there are folks who process things slowly, who actually mull things over in their minds before butting in. These people may actually be more thoughtful or creative.

If you are one of those people, don't run to judge yourself. Some of the most capable people take a beat to think things through—and often produce wiser outcomes.

The mind has many ways to express itself, and a preoccupation with speed can cover up many faults.

Verbal Virtuosity in Sales

Kelly gets a cold call from Rob, who tells her about an “investment opportunity” that he can “make available” to her. Kelly is a bright woman, and is about to hang up…but wait!

Rob spins Kelly's head with information, praise and opportunity. Kelly wonders, maybe she can make a ton of money here? Yet before she manages to get a word in edgewise, Rob is already handling her reservations. It's overwhelming.

The deal is a dud. See, Rob has a history of 'convincing' people out of their hard-earned cash. He's a verbal virtuoso that cons others into buying what they don’t need. Rob has some power over his customers, who look for explanations. He cunningly plies them with the next product to buy.

Who is Rob? He could be a stock broker, a real estate developer, or just a swindler. His verbal virtuosity carries the day.

Win the Argument, Lose the Relationship

Trevor comes in for a session. He's in couple’s therapy for a problematic marriage. He tells me that he just can't respond to Rebecca, who always gets the last word.

“Why?” I ask.

“Rebecca’s so fast on her feet,” Trevor tells me. “She always has an answer while I'm still sitting there wondering what to say. I don't always agree with Rebecca, but then she comes back so fast that I don't know what to do.”

The resentment is palpable. I point out to Trevor that it's important for him to think about his response and to find a quiet time to say what's important to him.

A couple can only move forward if they both feel validated in some way. Rebecca may win every argument, but does the marriage win?

...Not really

Just because Rebecca can win an argument doesn’t mean that she’s right or that it’s a healthy way to have a relationship. Trevor feels cornered by Rebecca’s verbal virtuosity. The bitterness isn't healthy for either of them.

I gave Trevor a few moments to consider what he wanted to say to Rebecca. That way, Trevor could see that he has capable thoughts that require respect. Without realizing it, Rebecca has been misusing her language skills in order to win power struggles, with Trevor and her extended family. When she thinks about it, she can sense the resentment that others carry whenever she shuts them down.

Her short-term strategy may work at first, but not over time. Rebecca and Trevor's story is important because, as with any dominant trait, people take advantage. Beautiful men and women often exploit their attractiveness to others. Wealthy folks can take advantage of others who vie for their attention. Famous people often get away with things that others could never.

A strong facility with language is a gift. But understand that it has a darker side. It may undermine your relationships in the long run—rather than establish them.

There's a time to speak up, and there's a time to shut up.

Verbal Virtuosity at School

Samantha is 15 years old and comes into the office in tears. A 10th-grader, she feels rejected by her clique, namely by a girl named Maggie, who has a sharp, vicious tongue.

Maggie is not my patient, but it's clear to me that she has a nimble way with words and uses it to dominate others—or to sting them when she feels threatened.

In therapy, I am not going to be able to help Samantha speak quicker, faster or with more grace. But I can normalize her experience and help her realize that her difficulty in dealing with Maggie's verbal jabs does not make her stupid or weak.

Over time, Samantha feels less threatened and more enabled. She learns to think carefully about her responses to the two or three methods that Maggie uses to hurt her. The best method? Not to deal with Maggie. Why put yourself in a place where you can be hurt by somebody?

In therapy, Samantha grows a greater sense of confidence. She's able to walk away from Maggie, or simply have a quick packaged response that works for her.

Samantha learns that there are bullies who can only hurt her if given air time. She also learns to appreciate her own intelligence and value. It helps her make friends.

Good Language, Good Communication

Language is a beautiful thing. And there are those who speak swiftly and with certainty. If their self-esteem is solid, there's no need to use that strength to control, hurt or harm others.

On the other hand, people can be petty. Eloquent people can learn of their power to control. Sometimes, they can’t help it. They don’t know another way, but those around them may burn with resentment.

If you're one of those people who’s looking for better relationships and you overwhelm friends, co-workers, or partners with your virtuosity, calm down, take a breath, and let him or her speak up.

If you feel oppressed by someone who speaks faster than you or acts like a know-it-all, take a deep breath, get centered, and decide what you want to do. Relatively, you may have slow processing. That is okay.

You can walk away. You can insist on your own air time and demand patience. You can table the argument for another time. If it's a chronic pattern in a partner relationship, you both may want do some couple's work.

Equalize the conversation by bringing it back to fairer terms. It takes a form of relational virtuosity. Everyone can win.

After all, your thoughts count, too. Chances are, you've got good things to say.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


"Freud, Anna (1895–1982) ." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (May 15, 2024).

Zajenkowski, M., & Dufner, M. (2020). "Why Do Narcissists Care So Much About Intelligence?" Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(3), 261-266.

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