Preventing Misunderstandings

One of the key characteristics of those of us with AS is that we tend to assume that others can ‘read our minds’ and that it is not necessary to inform them of what we are thinking or planning.

My wife often tells me I think everyone else is “clairvoyant.” when I ‘thought’ I have told her or explained to her something, but I really haven’t said anything. This is, essentially, an example of the “Theory of Mind” impairment, not appreciating that other people think differently than we do.

This has come up numerous times in my professional career. For example, one problem I had earlier in my career was not speaking up and contributing in meetings because I assumed the insights which were obvious to me were obvious to everybody else and that stating the obvious was a waste of everybody’s time. It was then pointed out to me by a number of people that I should have shared in meetings thoughts that I had pointed out in one-on-one discussions or in writing, and that I was, as a result, “selling myself short” by not sharing them. The consequence of this was that I probably missed a few promotion opportunities, simply because I was not “visible” enough to senior management.

One way I tried to adapt was to approach meetings as an opportunity to make specific and targeted contributions and showcase my projects. Specifically it meant coming to meeting with specific accomplishments to tell other people about. This required overcoming my (typical AS) tendency of not wanting to call attention to myself, even (or especially) in a positive way. This concerted strategy of making a special effort to make tangible contributions in meetings eventually helped my career by getting me into some senior management positions.

Another example of not making the best impression in meetings is where I occasionally was “put on the spot” by my bosses in meetings regarding pending projects, deadline etc. It became clear that a key problem was that I was not keeping them up to date, and that the solution to this was to proactively brief my bosses in memos or face-to-face before problems came up. This had the added benefit of allowing me to contribute new ideas in meetings, rather than having to focus on day-to-day problems.

Making a good impression in meetings is key. Knowing what you want to say and delivering it concisely is extremely important. This sometimes means writing it out and practicing the delivery so that it is clear and quick, because a big danger with AS is a tendency to ramble. Another problem to avoid is the use of crutch words like “ums and ahs.” One of the things I have done in this area is to take public speaking opportunities, which has become very helpful since I have started a second career as a university lecturer.

Although I was able to adapt reasonably well in purely job-related situations, I have been less successful in the area of work/family life balance. This is a problem for many people but I think it is intensified for married people with AS because of an inability to “mix” work and family life.

For example, I have always preferred not to discuss my personal life with colleagues and likewise I have tended not to discuss my work problems with my wife. Because of this lack of communication between the two, I have failed to keep the right balance between work and family, creating major misunderstandings, sometimes on all fronts.

The context is that I was in a high-pressure executive job, working long hours with a wife and four children. I was under intense pressure to satisfy both my bosses and my family. As one might expect with AS, I usually erred in favour of my work:

• Scheduling of holidays. There were many occasions where I was not proactive in organising family holidays. Although I made the travel arrangements, I didn’t always bother to get approval from my company on the specific dates until after I booked the tickets. I would make the travel arrangements after repeated complaints from my family about not having had a vacation. But not getting company approval first was rather risky because my family was already starting to look forward to holidays on specific dates even though my bosses were not yet aware of this! On a few occasions, conflicts came up (they always do!) with group meetings that couldn’t be changed. Because I hadn’t told my bosses about my holiday plans, I was in a difficult situation. On one occasion, I had to cut short a family holiday (creating a huge misunderstanding with my wife, who couldn’t believe then that it was simple neglect on my part). On another occasion I just declined to attend the meeting (improving credibility with my family, but losing some with the company by not attending a meeting I was slated to attend). A little advance communication with my employer and family could have avoided a lot of misunderstanding. After all, scheduling holidays is a normal thing to do, but it requires advance planning, especially when taking them during busy periods when other colleagues are likely to want to take them then. We people with AS tend to procrastinate in the advance planning side, even when it is something that will directly benefit us. Perhaps another explanation is that we don’t complete the task: when making arrangements, the task isn’t finished until everybody is informed and they agree.

• Taking an overseas assignment. On another occasion, I was in a job that involved a lot of overseas travel to Brazil, the country where I was born. It quickly became apparent that I was not able to effectively do the job by just travelling to Brazil; I had to relocate there. For me it was a logical decision, and one which tied in well with living overseas as an expatriate (a frequent goal of people with AS). It was also a requirement, at least for this job. Given that I had family relations in Brazil, and my wife had visited there on two occasions, it was a no-brainer that I would take the assignment, right? Wrong! Although the logic was very compelling for me, I had not invested much time in “selling” the concept to my wife. It quickly became apparent to her that I was uprooting the family and cutting all ties to their friends and taking them to a foreign country and foreign culture without any consideration to them! Well, we made the move, but at great cost to family harmony and my credibility. The difficulty my family had in adapting to the foreign environment also did not help my performance in the overseas assignment, because I was constantly dealing with phone calls from my wife and family regarding problems with the flat, school, domestic help, driver etc. This could all have been avoided if I spent more time communicating with my family and getting their concurrence before accepting the assignment, and then patiently briefing and preparing them for what to expect.

• The birth of our son. He was born in Brazil during the same assignment. The job was very stressful in a highly competitive bidding situation for a government privatization. I was heading up a regional office and my bosses were all in the States. Although I had let some people know about my wife’s pregnancy, apparently I never told my US-based bosses. Once again, like not telling them early about my vacation plans, I also didn’t talk about my personal family situation. Perhaps because I was focused on getting the job done, I assumed that they didn’t want to hear about my personal life. When our son was born, I was present at his birth but soon afterwards I had to go to some important (at least I thought) meetings that I was chairing. This was extremely distressful for my wife who was just coming home from hospital; she still mentions it 11 years later! From my boss’s standpoint, when he found out about my son’s birth he didn’t just think I was a dedicated employee; he thought I was crazy to not be spending time with my family, and he ordered me to take time off to be with my wife and new baby. I, on the other hand, thought I was being a good company “soldier” by putting the company first. From the company’s standpoint, nobody should be “indispensible” and I should have done a better job getting backup coverage. After all, it’s not like it couldn’t be foreseen months in advance. From my wife’s perspective, my going to a meeting so soon after the birth meant I wasn’t there to provide her with support. From my perspective, a lot of men were away from their wives after a birth, and many took some of this time to be with their mates at the pub! I, on the other hand, was absent because I was going to work, not to enjoy myself but to help my family. Did that rationale make it easier for my wife? No, the important thing for her was that she needed support then and there, and I wasn’t providing that support. The result of all this was that I was misunderstood by my wife and employer, even though I was trying (not very effectively) to please everyone.

Above are a few examples of how I have failed to keep the balance in a high-flying career setting, creating major misunderstandings, sometimes on all fronts.

Like all situations with AS, it is important to learn from experience and mistakes. One key mistake is a total reluctance to mix personal life and work life. The consequence of this is that needs of work and family are not communicated to each other, and sometimes one or both of these two areas “fall through the cracks.” Having periodic and proactive informal discussions about my family issues with my bosses and colleagues, as well as talking about work with my wife would avoid much of this.

Another technique in striking this balance is to become more organised. I tend to keep everything in my head rather than using electronic organisers (I’m rubbish with organising papers) even though I have bought many gadgets. I constantly need to make a special effort to use them and keep them up to date. Switching over day-to-day things like bills and taxes to paperless and electronic has helped a lot.

Being in a management position and navigating through all the interpersonal demands and company politics are very demanding for someone with AS, leaving not much time and energy for being a husband and father for a predominantly-NT family. Striking the balance between family and work life is especially challenging for someone with AS, but it can be done.

Central to this is thinking and planning ahead – and considering the needs of people!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome