Assertive Communication: Conveying Internal Needs

Introduction

Communication for everyone in the workplace is a challenge. For someone with Asperger Syndrome (AS) it can be more pronounced due to difficulties associated with understanding others and different internal thought processes.

Over time, John has developed more effective communication strategies based on improved understanding of others and empathizing more closely with them.

Central to this has been Assertive Communication; firmly conveying his views and needs in a non-aggressive or antagonistic manner. Doing so has significantly enhanced his job performance and working relationships with colleagues.

Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

I worked as a full-time Receptionist /Administrative Assistant within a small company. I had originally been hired for a very different position, but the company discovered I was more suited to information management. I also possessed excellent customer service skills.

My job description changed constantly, but I rolled with it. I wanted a long-term position, and needed to remain flexible in order to remain a valuable, reliable employee who was wanted. This was despite my education level extending beyond that which was required for the position.

My methods of communication and information retention, however, often differed from my co-workers. Despite this, and though I had no real experience of an office environment and was not working in my field of training, I developed my own strategies and winged it to get along.

Central to my strong performance was the support of the staff around me. They offered help and guidance, such as with the run-through of the phone system, which I soon became comfortable with, despite my dislike of speaking with unfamiliar people when I couldn’t read the emotions on their faces.

The position was the product of a job-placement service combined with a vocational rehabilitation program. I was hesitant to join given my higher qualifications, but I accepted this to enter a new field, one that might take me a little time to adjust to. I also appreciated that it would require asking for help that I had previously deemed unnecessary.

My immediate supervisor had been informed that I had Asperger’s, but I did not know this until many months later. She did not seem to consider it when communicating with me, however, and tried instead to treat me like everyone else by ignoring the diagnosis. (It should be noted here that my diagnosis was barely two months old, and I certainly didn’t know enough to be able to speak on the subject with any degree of confidence.)

My supervisor saw that I was working hard, but never seemed to make much of an effort to connect to me as anything more than with any other employee. Generally, she did not treat many (if any) of her co-workers with respect and seemed to blame her larger mistakes on those working directly under her.

When I did something correctly, I was told so, but one minor change to the process would throw it into question for me again, something which I found unsettling.

Consequently, I would ask my supervisors the same questions, but in a different context. They didn’t always realize or understand this, so I had to explain to them that this was just the way I thought things through. What I felt I was lacking was some much-needed reassurance as I struggled to get to grips with the position initially.

Initially in this role, I was seeing a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) whose specialty was Asperger’s. In addition to giving me some in-depth insight as to how the condition affected my seeing things from a different angle, or in a different light to my co-workers, she offered several suggestions regarding how to work with my supervisor that proved to be immensely helpful.

My supervisor always assumed that, because she was told I was a “structured” person, I couldn’t work without a lot of structure. However, I can work with a variety of structures, but I seem to ask the most questions when it comes to operating within more rigid ones. This is because I was required to work within a pre-defined structure or in a way that was not entirely natural to me. With a fluid structure, I was allowed freedom of thought and to utilize my own work methodology, so any interpretations I developed helped me to accomplish my goal(s).

Perhaps this is what threw my supervisor(s). As they built a more and more complex information system for me to understand, I had more and more questions and appeared to become increasingly “lost.” I believe that someone with Asperger’s needs assistance in incorporating a lot of connections.

Many of my previous positions (and especially my current one) have required flexible or “outside the box” thinking. That’s great, and I could probably have done more of it…if I knew where the box was! As it was, I just thought of the most logical or reasonable solution, and worked through every problem in my own unique way, instead of clarifying clearly what exactly was required.

However, if my supervisor(s) were not pleased with the solution I came up with, they often either got frustrated at me or removed me from the project and did it themselves. I tried to tell them that I wanted to know where I went wrong so that I did not repeat the mistake, but I usually got the same negative responses.

I didn’t tell my last supervisor about my AS diagnosis because I didn’t feel that I could do it accurately. I often feel that I have to master something before I can tackle it in a conversation, and this supervisor seemed to have a shorter attention span than a lot of my co-workers. I didn’t feel that this would give me adequate time to formulate my thoughts and explain things to her.

Most supervisors were simply too impatient to listen to my explanation about how contexts needed to be rebuilt in order for me to understand where my actions went awry, or that I might need to ask multiple questions in similar or different contexts to get a firm grasp as to what was needed of me.

I often went back to my desk frustrated, but endeavoring to soak in what little detail I could from the interaction, turning it over and over in my mind to look at every angle for any detail or clue I may have missed.

A supervisor asked me if I was getting the concept of what I was doing. I responded that I needed to ask a number of questions to fully understand the question or concept as the context or situation was invariably different. This way, I tried to explain that, though I communicated differently, I could fully grasp the concept they were trying to get across, but had to look at it in my mind in a different way to see it from all angles.

It was a personal comment my supervisor made that was out of context, but which gave me a brief glimpse into his or her interests or thought process which allowed me to digest how they handled this type of procedure.

An example would be a comment something along the lines of “That’s weird how (this vendor) did that…” or “I like how they did their border on this advertisement.” I would then try to integrate elements of what he or she was looking at. These gave me slight insights as to what he or she might have liked to see from me.

One of my supervisors was very patient with me and really tried to understand where I was coming from. My other supervisor (with whom I worked closely), however, never fully understood what I was trying to relate to her, as she perhaps did not try as hard to understand what type of person I was, or perhaps it was my failure to effectively communicate to her how I communicated. According to other co-workers she seemed less interested in employee’s personalities and approaches as she was with their capabilities. When she did make suggestions I simply found them patronizing.

As I had repeatedly debated the issue of disclosing my diagnosis to my supervisors (and how to do it), I asked the LCSW how I might relate Asperger’s to my supervisor. The two of us came to the conclusion that I could give the less understanding supervisor a list of ways the condition strengthens me as far as being a worker (attention to detail, determination, persistence, politeness, carefully watching what I say in a social environment, etc.).

However, instead of telling my supervisor, I told a co-worker whom I trusted, and whom I had already been screening a lot of questions through such as what should I do if this happens, is this appropriate, what is this person’s personality like, etc.

I found out that the non-receptive supervisor had told her about my diagnosis early on, and that my co-worker had read up on AS quite a bit, and so asked her if I could continue to confide in her. She agreed and that I could disclose any frustrations to her. (The two of us remain good friends to this day.)

With hindsight, I should have been more assertive in following up with my supervisor to see if I had effectively communicated my needs to her. Whether or not this included disclosure is a key point. I have not always been able to accurately describe how I think in words, but if my personal relationships have anything to say about it, I do have a strong ability to get my point across.

I also have strong abilities as far as relating to others, sympathizing, empathizing, and being there when someone needs me. Communicating my point, emotion, or stance on something has never been an insurmountable issue, though at times it is difficult. I can, and do, need to do this and should have done so with my Supervisory managers.

Overview

In retrospect, I perceive that explaining more complex topics without getting mired in details was a difficulty for me. Central to this is assertively informing others of where I am coming form, and what I need whilst, at the same time, considering more fully where others are coming from also.

If I had been more assertive in pointing out that I need a certain number of specifics in order to effectively operate, perhaps my supervisor would have paid more attention. (Central to this is appreciating the possibility that perhaps this was partly a fault of my own, not hers, i.e. taking responsibility and communicating more assertively.)

Perhaps what could have helped is giving more examples, or more explicit or relevant examples of the difficulties relating to the type of work I was asked to do. Often, however, my supervisor seemed too busy to sit down and have this kind of conversation. I should, however, have insisted. From an AS perspective, this is a critical conversation to have and can smooth over future – and interpersonal problems – that might arise between you and your other co-workers.

This approach applies also to other areas in a work context. Now when difficult issues come up, I never get defensive or blame another person for anything that I couldn’t explain. I simply own up to any lack of action that was my responsibility and explain why something hasn’t been done.

If something falls upon another coworker and doesn’t get accomplished, I try to help them out or, if it was their fault, state that I understand the prevailing circumstances that impinged on them.

Importantly, I also try not to admit fault for more than I was justifiably responsible for, though I have been guilty of this from time to time. Doing so mitigates the potential for others to “project” blame onto me undeservedly, something which having AS has meant I have sometimes allowed to happen.

Of great assistance of avoiding situations that require assertive communication, is making a concerted effort to deliver whenever I promised something, quite frequently rearranging priorities on the fly. This has not always been easy as my Executive Function has often discouraged me. In order to avoid involving my co-workers unduly about tasks, I write myself a comprehensive spreadsheet listing all my duties. Frequent reference to this helps to eliminate interrupting busy co-workers to cut back on repetitive questions and reduces the amount of interruptions when I need more information.

If I am questioned about my work, I always try to turn the situation around in my head and appreciate that the other person probably doesn’t have a very clear idea as to how I go about accomplishing a goal. In other words, not only do I try to inform others more clearly of my requirements and question them less, but when I do ask for assistance I try to ensure that I do whilst taking their operational and emotional needs more fully into account to increase their understanding.

Assertive communication is also invaluable in relation to conflict resolution. For the most part, I try not to get angry or take it personally if I have someone aggressively confronting me. I simply ask, once they calm down, why they are angry at me, if I have hurt them how, and what I might do in the future to avoid this. Having AS means that I have previously shied away from confrontation; not doing so by asserting myself to communicate has greatly reduced difficulties in this area.

Before confronting someone about something, however, I go through whatever has happened from the other perspective, remembering what they had said, what I had said, and how what I said might have been taken by them, considering their personality, background (education, life circumstances, etc.) as best I know it. I then admit fault immediately for anything that I may have accidentally encroached on while maintaining a firm resolve to try to avoid that in the future.

This is not to say that I necessarily agree with everything that they are stating, but if it is something that, after further (and immediate) reflection, I was obviously or potentially guilty of, I back off immediately and apologize for any transgressions to calm a situation. For the most part, this has been met with rapid diffusion of anger, especially as I really strive to show evidence soon after that I have heard and understood what they said, recognized their position, and that I am trying to respect their wishes whilst going along with my assigned task(s).

The effect of all this is something like rain falling on a lake. For many with AS, we do this at about half the speed of a neuro-typical. It’s a critical verbal ballet we perform, and if we slip, we must backtrack and do a lot of analysis about what could have been taken a number of different ways, how, and why.

However, it’s very much worth it, in my opinion. It keeps me on my toes, and it keeps my mind open to possible connections that I didn’t see coming or didn’t even know existed. On top of that, I have learned to never allow myself to believe that I wasn’t capable of effectively communicating with others until I tried it. After that point, I have often excelled at it.

When I finished the role of Receptionist / Administration Assistant, I had received no complaints from incoming callers as to my demeanor. I lost track of the number of compliments I had been told I had been given.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome