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Navigating Communication in the Workplace

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Navigating Communication in the Workplace

By Lynne Soraya
Autism Asperger’s Digest  July/August 2014

In the workplace, the word communication seems ubiquitous. For an adult on the spectrum, that’s something that can often cause anxiety. How do you successfully navigate the world of work when you have a condition which is defined, in part, by differences in communication?

This is a question I came to late in life. Like many of my generation, I grew up without a diagnosis. By the time I found out about autism, I was already well established in my career. Re-evaluating my work life through the lens of autism gave me a lot of insights. The most important was one most wouldn’t expect.

Different Is Good

I came to realize that aspects of autism were key components of my success. Being different from others gave me knowledge that helped me greatly in the workplace. I grew up knowing that not everyone thinks or communicates alike. This, in itself, is a huge advantage.

When I interviewed other adults on the spectrum for my recent book, Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum (Adams Media, 2013), I found that my own experience was not isolated. Peter, an interviewee who works in the financial industry, said:

People tell me that I think out of the box and that I see situations and developments in my field of work a lot faster than others. Also, my way of approaching problems differs from others’. I don’t really see a need to adjust, other than taking more time to explain. But people are not always used to my way of approaching problems—I learned to take time so that others can learn about my typical approaches.

Understanding Your Differences

Peter describes, much like I’ve found, how our approach to problems can be valuable in the workplace. But he also emphasizes that it can be a challenge getting others to understand your style of thinking and communicating. Sometimes, as Peter noted, it just takes time. Or, it means changing your approach.

In my case, I’ve found that educating people about autism helps. Many people you’ll encounter in the workplace don’t have a lot of experience with autism, or the differences that come with it. So when they interact with a person on the spectrum, they filter the person’s words and behavior through their own biases and preconceptions shaped by their experiences as a neurotypical. In other words, they’re not responding to the autistic trait itself, but what they think it means.

When navigating communication differences in the workplace, what you’re really trying to manage is the meaning people take from your words and actions. A key piece of this is understanding the differences that exist. Which traits of yours are most frequently misunderstood? How do your coworkers differ from you when it comes to the way they think about their work? Are they visual thinkers? Do they go by “gut feel”? Are they focused on people, or on facts?

When you understand your own differences, it helps you help others interpret your own body language, words, and actions. Many times, just a brief statement can change how a coworker reacts to a statement or type of behavior. For example, if you have specific coworkers who talk a lot and seem to disengage from you when they talk to you because it takes a while for you to answer, it can make a big difference to say, “My brain is a little slower to process speech—so if I don’t answer right away, it’s not that I’m ignoring you or not paying attention…it’s just that I’m catching up.” It signals them to change the meaning they take from your behavior.

Communication Flows Two Ways

Years ago I was cleaning out the cabinets in a new cubicle I was assigned when I stumbled across a book called The New Office Professional’s Handbook. Although the book targeted people in specific roles, I found some of the advice about relating to others extremely helpful. One useful point I took from it was that relationships in the workplace are not one-way interactions.

Early in my career, it didn’t occur to me that I could have expectations of my manager or my coworkers. I would take direction from managers, and respond to their directives, but I didn’t initiate many conversations. Now, I do. With every new manager, I initiate a two-way conversation in which I introduce myself, talk about what I do, and how I typically go about doing my job. In the conversation, I’ll cover things like

  • my work style and needed support. (I typically work best when working independently, but if I ever run into a situation where I need support, I’m the type of person who will ask you directly for help.)
  • any types of differences it would be helpful for you to know. (My “default setting” is to be very direct, so please don’t take it personally. And if it is a problem, please do not hesitate to tell me.)
  • how you can best communicate with me. (I don’t hear well, so please talk to me face-to-face, so that I can read lips, or write it down. It also helps me a great deal if you give me a bit of time to make notes on things you say.)
  • how you prefer to work/interact. (What is important to you as a manager? How would you like me to communicate with you? Do you prefer written reports or meetings to discuss status of projects?)

This practice has helped me establish good working relationships. Initiating such conversations allows you to set the tone for the relationship and prevent misunderstandings before they happen. A manager’s job is to keep their employees productive, so by providing insight into what helps you be productive, you’re helping your manager to be more effective as well. What’s important is to keep the conversation focused on the job. It’s not about “here’s how you can help me.” It’s “here’s how you, as a manager, can help me to be more effective and productive in accomplishing my tasks.”

Listening Is Essential

Another technique that’s helpful in communicating across neurological differences is listening. Many people use the words listening and hearing interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Hearing something can be done by accident, listening cannot. Listening involves consciously paying attention and reacting to what the other person is saying. When frustrated, it’s not uncommon for people to say, “You’re not hearing me!” In most cases when they say that they mean, “You’re not paying attention to or understanding what I’m saying.” Or, “You’re not listening to me.”

Listening is extremely important for those of us on the spectrum because of the differences between how we communicate and how we assimilate information. If we’re not paying close attention to what a coworker says, and making sure we understand completely, misunderstanding can be a frequent, stressful occurrence. A few techniques I use to ensure understanding are the following:

Ask questions. Often people may define concepts and words differently, and shorthand terms for concepts may develop among different groups. Someone might say, “You need to talk to Marketing about that.” Often the speaker may have a specific person in Marketing in mind. They may assume you know who it is, and maybe you think you do, too—but it’s a good idea to confirm. You can do this by asking a follow-up question: “Can you recommend which person in particular I should speak to in Marketing?”

Recap what has been said. When you are talking to a coworker or boss about something important, it can help to recap what has been said, to confirm that what you understood is correct. If there are terms that were used in the conversation that are shorthand terms or are otherwise ambiguous, don’t use them. Instead of using the term, substitute what you think the speaker meant by that term. Frequently, this will bring to light differences between your interpretation of the word and how they meant it. You can say, “So what you’re saying is, before we can complete this project, we need to speak with Jim Miller in Marketing to ensure the project won’t interfere with their project that is underway?”

Tell others how they will know you are listening. Unfortunately for us, some of the ways that neurotypicals communicate they are listening can be difficult for us. For example, eye contact is often interpreted as an indication of listening to a person, so if you have difficulty with eye contact, it may cause people to assume that you aren’t listening to them when you are. In those cases, it can be important to speak up and say something like, “I’m listening, but need a minute or two to process. Looking down helps me focus.” Explaining this changes the meaning of your behavior from “ignoring” to “focusing intently on what’s being said” and prevents misunderstandings.

As Brian R. King, LCSW, mentioned in another interview for my book, often neurotypicals “talk in code,” and we can be tempted to believe that’s “just the way it is.” But like all social activities, communication is reciprocal. We can make choices about how we choose to engage with others, and those choices can make a big difference in how we navigate the workplace. It’s a diverse world; finding common ground when it comes to communication can open up great opportunities to build wonderful working relationships!


Lynne Soraya is the author of Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum (Adams Media, 2013) and Asperger’s Diary blog on PsychologyToday.com. By day, she works for a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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