Barbara Bissonnette: Handling Conflict

In her latest newsletter, Barbara Bissonette of ForwardMotion looks at the instance of a worker – “Dan” – with Asperger syndrome (AS) who encounters difficulties as a result of a corporate re-organisation. The features and outcomes of this process can be profound for someone with AS and in this month’s Q&A session (as part of our regular series) I probe Barbara on the effects – and some of the possible solutions.

MJ: Barbara. Dealing with conflict is, I believe – along with coping with anxiety – one of the biggest challenges that a manager with Asperger syndrome has to deal with in the workplace.

This – and learning how to handle disagreement – is something that I have simply had to do and I have always found it incredibly challenging. Technically, I have almost invariably performed my job tasks well. The issues for me have revolved around inter-personal factors, politics and unwritten workplace rules which have, unfortunately, led to disagreement and, at times, conflict.
If I was to ask you for one piece of advice about dealing with disagreement and conflict, what would it be?

BB: Conflict and disagreements are a given in the workplace, and most people (NTs included) are uncomfortable in these situations. They can be particularly problematic for a manager with Asperger’s Syndrome, however, because of the need to understand someone else’s point of view, control emotional reactions, and compromise. And you are so right: performing job tasks well is not the primary factor for career success. Being able to work with other people is.

My best piece of advice about dealing with disagreement and conflict is to understand the other person’s point of view. It can be very tempting to react by explaining why you are right and the other person is wrong. Aspergians tend to be black and white thinkers, and the “all or nothing” position can be perceived by NTs as stubbornness and unwillingness to listen.

When you face a conflict or disagreement, acknowledge it, and seek to understand the other person’s perspective. You could say something like, “We see this situation differently. Tell me more about what you think the real problem is,” or, “Help me understand why you don’t agree.” Statements like these invite a discussion. Judgments (“That’s ridiculous!”; “How could you think that?!”) invite more conflict.

MJ: in the example you provide in your newsletter, you talk about the person in question being unable to work with a manager he didn’t like or respect.

I have been in this situation myself before. When a person with Asperger disrespects (as you outline) another person, it can be quite obvious for that other person to discern it. Often the vibes that are extended by an individual with AS are ones of contempt.
I believe that there will always be people who a person with AS finds virtually impossible to work with. When this is so, the best thing I believe that a manager with AS can do is extricate oneself from the situation as soon as possible.

However, I have also learnt from experience there this is far from easy if not impossible; certainly in an economic climate such as the one that prevails currently which means that switching jobs is very difficult.

If you simply cannot get out, what would your advice and strategy be?

BBYou are right, Malcolm, that people with Asperger’s can have a hard time disguising their contempt for people who they believe are unfair, who boss them around, are dishonest, or not too bright. NTs usually have a much easier time concealing their feelings.

Sometimes, the situation solves itself. The offending individual gets promoted to a different area of the company, gets a job at a different organization, or gets fired. It may be possible for the Asperger’s manager to find a different job within the company. Otherwise, if the situation is creating a lot of stress, resigning may be the best option, but doing so before securing another job is risky. Remember that you could encounter the troublesome individual again, at a different company, in a few years. So whatever happens, strive always to be professional.

One way to reduce stress while you are looking for another job is to reframe the current situation. Reframing is when you look at a situation in a different, more positive, way. Instead of going to work thinking, “Another day working for my idiot boss,” you could reframe the situation by thinking, “Until a new position comes along, I’m lucky to earn a pay check,” or “My boss is doing the best she knows how to do in this situation; and I am, too.”
In order for reframing to be effective, you need to believe that your new thought is true. Approach this exercise in a logical way. Your feelings about a situation are not necessarily the truth of the situation. You can also feel two things at once, for example, contempt for your supervisor, and also gratitude for having a pay check.

Taking positive action also relieves stress. If you are unhappy, find a meaningful goal. Then do at least one thing, no matter how small, every day that moves you closer to the goal.

MJ: a person with Asperger syndrome will often demonstrate thinking that is very egocentric. Part of the propensity to do this stems from the unique insight that they can generate as a result of their highly original mode of thinking.
For me, this is heightened analytical ability to see “the wider picture”. I believe that I can see a business situation from a perspective that others struggle or fail to do completely.
I honestly believe that I do make a concerted effort to take the viewpoints of others on-board; I do not naturally ignore or disregard the input or views of others.

However, like the person in your text, I do find it very frustrating when other people fail to see my perspective and the undoubted advantages that stem from it. Indeed, I believe that one of my biggest failures in management has been able to develop sufficient gravitas and the ability to get my point of view across.
Much of this emanates from my different mode of communication: either I don’t fully understand other people or they are clearly “not getting me”.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

BBYou mention feeling frustrated when people don’t understand your perspective or its advantages. I wonder if you are clearly articulating how a different approach will benefit the other people involved. If your approach is egocentric, without a full understanding the problems and priorities facing other managers in the organization, you will not get their buy-in.

Think about the potential impact your proposed change will have on others. Will it create more work for the accounting department, lessen commissions for the sales people, result in job loss in the engineering group, or shift the balance of power? People will resist if something they value is threatened, although they won’t state this directly.

This is why developing relationships with your colleagues is so important for managers. As you earn people’s trust over time, they will become more receptive to your ideas. This means participating in company events, inviting your peers to lunch, and learning something about their lives outside of work. It is during informal conversations that NTs often share information about their concerns, and discuss company politics.

When you present your point of view, focus on the big picture and not the details. Long, detailed explanations will confuse people. One of the best pieces of management advice I ever received was that if you can’t state your position in one or two sentences, that a 10 year old child can understand, you are making things too complicated. Always state how your ideas will save time or money, or increase productivity.

Timing is another aspect of influencing others. If you insist in trying to change something that has already been decided upon, your efforts will be seen as resistance and poor teamwork. Similarly, if managers are preoccupied with other initiatives, or struggling to meet their performance targets, they will be less inclined to make changes. You may need to wait a few months to get their attention.

MJ: Dan talks about [corporate] re-organisations. These are an increasingly unavoidable facet of modern day business and I have been involved in two or three major ones.

They also present I think, specific difficulties for a manager with Asperger syndrome as they impinge directly on a number of AS-related issues: disruption to routine, the need to learn new job tasks, adaptation to a new managerial culture and, perhaps most challenging of all, re-formulation of a relationship with a new line-manager.

Is there a formula/distinct strategy that is relevant and appropriate which a manager with AS could adopt which would provide a framework for coping with these issues and the change that a re-organisation presents?

BBYou have hit upon one of the fundamental differences between neurotypicals and Aspergians. NTs are group oriented. When there is a major reorganization, or a new boss, they immediately focus on what the new expectations are, and what changes they need to make in order to fit into the new structure. Sometimes the new expectations are implied, not explicitly stated. Aspergians, on the other hand, continue handling things in the same way, and may become side-tracked trying to learn new tasks or systems.

First and foremost, accept that reorganization or a new supervisor means change. Prepare yourself mentally by viewing changes as a chance to learn new skills and procedures that can advance your career. Ask a new supervisor how he or she likes to receive information (e.g. personal meeting, email), and what their priorities are over the next six months. Do what you can to further the new objectives. If you are confused about what is expected, say so and ask for clarification.

MJ: I would like to move on now to disagreements and how to face and overcome them positively. As you say, minor differences can escalate into major conflicts and the causes can be diverse and many.

Most for me have revolved around inter-personal issues and I’d like to question you more closely if I may on the examples that you cite.

1. You state that the purpose of interactions is to fulfil business objectives and that, when dealing with an individual, you do not have to necessarily like them or agree with them, but you must be prepared to interact with people whose perspectives, personal goals and values differ from yours.

I’d agree with all this, but don’t think that the case is that straightforward for someone with AS. For example, if I meet someone I take a dislike to immediately, I try internally from a mental perspective to give them the benefit of the doubt; to look for something good in them (empathise, look at things from their perspective etc), and reach out to them. I think that I have had some success in doing this.

The main problem starts when I am working with someone whose values are – for me – not only fundamentally different, but unacceptable. My heightened sense of “right and wrong” and the innate sense of fairness mean that if I encounter a person or a situation that contradicts this I find it virtually impossible to “turn the other cheek” internally.

In extreme cases I do believe that the best way is to extricate oneself from the situation, i.e. leave, but this, of course, is not always possible, especially, as mentioned, in this economic climate.

What would your approach be in such a circumstance?

BBThe sense of justice and fairness that is characteristic of so many Asperger’s individuals is quite admirable. It is also true that people are happier when their work is aligned with their personal values. And certainly, practices that violate the law or the rights of individuals are never acceptable. However the definitions of fair, right and wrong are frequently subjective.

I remember working for a company where there were rumours of layoffs. At a company-wide meeting, senior management assured the employees that no was going to be laid off. Several months later, some people were let go. You could say that management lied, and that this was unfair. However, the company was not meeting its revenue targets, so management changed its position. The only choice was to accept the changes, and continue to interact with senior management in a professional way.

Just because you have a certain feeling about something on the inside, you do not have to show it on the outside. Companies exist to make profit, and must adapt to changing conditions. Individual managers have their own preferences and values, with don’t always match with everyone they interact with. Think about your priorities. Is it more important to carry around resentment for co-workers (which they probably will sense) or to focus on doing the best job that you possibly can?

MJ:Do Not Overstep Your Authority

This, again, is something that I can find quite difficult and I can see how, with hindsight, I have done this previously.
I think that there are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the ability to “see the wider picture” as a consequence of my highly original mode of [Asperger] thinking, has enabled me to see both the dangers and potential benefits that, perhaps, other managers can’t in a given situation.

When the latter occurs I can become very frustrated and, I believe, quite opinionated. This has led some people to accuse me of being “arrogant”. I “disagree” as you put it, in the wrong way.
Secondly, when I meet a person who acts in a way that I believe is “unreasonable” then I will not bow to that unreasonableness under any circumstances.

This situation manifests itself more readily in the case of a bully. There is this type of manager and they are the type of manager whom I find it hardest, if not impossible, to form a relationship and cope with.

The techniques that you are advocating are, I believe, sound: don’t judge people personally and use neutral language.
However, when contentious business issues, or when I am being judged personally and technically, or even personally attacked as I have because of my AS on occasions, I find this virtually impossible to do. The aforementioned facets invariably bring the negatives of my AS to the fore and overrun the propensity to think and act rationally.

What practical steps can you suggest that may assist in overcoming this?

BBDo not react in the heat of the moment. People literally do not think clearly when their emotions are running high. Excuse yourself from the situation as quickly as possible, and find a place where you can calm down.

Plan a strategy in advance for dealing with such situations, so that you are not caught off guard. Think about past experiences, and whether you can identify specific triggers. What can you do differently in the future? Perhaps you can prepare an explanation for needing to leave a situation: “This discussion is making me angry. I need some time to cool down, so we can talk about this rationally.” Learn to notice when your anger is rising, so that you can deal with it before you lose control.

Be certain that you are not over-reacting. Asperger’s individuals can be very sensitive to criticism, and interpret feedback as an attack. Could you have interpreted a statement very literally, misunderstanding what the other person was really saying? Are you so certain about your point of view, that you refuse to compromise in any way? Why did this individual choose a certain action? Can you figure out why they thought they were being reasonable?

There certainly are times when you need to stand up and defend yourself. A few weeks ago, one of my clients, who had experienced performance problems in the past for losing her temper, described a situation where she “blew up” at a co-worker during a meeting.

The co-worker in question was interrupting, challenging every point my client made, and insinuating that she did not do a good job. The project was unsuccessful because of factors that were completely outside of her control. She finally interrupted this co-worker, and asked in an angry tone, “Can I talk now?” The next day, he apologized.

MJ: you talk about putting a single action into perspective by considering the history of the other person, i.e. have you got on with them in the past? You go onto say that one should always give them the benefit of the doubt initially.

This, I think, is invaluable advice. I certainly wish that I’d had that on my “mental map” when I first started a role which was to become the one in which I was happiest in my career to date and when I encountered a difficulty with one individual that had profound consequences for me going forward. The reason I say this is, because for someone with Asperger syndrome, discerning motives is difficult when there is no “past history”.

The same issue I feel applies to things like dealing with criticism. Ultimately, I suppose it is also about “boundaries”: knowing when to let something pass or confronting the issue immediately to set a boundary and not allowing something to take hold initially. What are your thoughts on this?

BBEveryone makes mistakes or says the wrong thing from time to time. Deciding that you can never trust, or will never talk to, that person again is the result of rigid, black-and-white thinking. Presume that there was simply a misunderstanding.
If you hear criticism as a personal attack or judgment, step back and consider what is being said, by whom, and under what circumstances. Feedback reveals how others perceive you. Their perception may not be the truth of the situation, but they act based on what they perceive. Understanding how you impact others gives you a chance to change perceptions by acting differently.
And yes, establish boundaries and set priorities. People who react to every perceived slight quickly get a reputation for being “problem” employees.

MJ: Finally, I would be interested to learn of any strategies you could advocate when there is relationship breakdown and the possibility of rectifying the situation; or, at least, getting back to some form of acceptable, working relationship.

BBIt is possible to repair relationships, as long as the confrontation was not so contentious that the parties involved are not able to move past their hurt, angry feelings.
What doesn’t work is ignoring the situation, hoping that it will resolve itself, or waiting too long to address it. Generally, you want to reach out within 24 hours of the incident, once you are calm and have worked out a plan.

First, figure out what needs to happen to reach your desired outcome. Do you need to apologize for saying or doing something hurtful or inappropriate? Do you need to clarify the other person’s intentions? Perhaps you and your colleague disagree about a policy, or how something needs to get done, and you need to find a compromise.

Next, ask the individual to discuss the situation. State clearly your intention to resolve the matter (“Mark, I want to talk to you about our disagreement, and figure out a solution. Can we meet on Thursday afternoon in the conference room?”). Unless you and your colleague work in different offices that are a long distance apart, you should plan on a face-to-face meeting. If you are very uncertain about how to handle the situation, it might be best to talk it over with your supervisor.

Avoid making judgments about the other individual. Statements such as, “When you ignored me;” “Your insulting remark…,” “After you refused to listen…” are judgments. Use neutral language instead that describes the situation and your feelings. “Mark, when you described my plan as unworkable after reading just the first page, I was concerned that the team would think that I hadn’t thoroughly analyzed the problem. I apologize for getting angry and yelling. I’d like it if in the future you would read my recommendations completely before commenting. Okay?” Let the other person respond, and really listen. Do not interrupt to disagree or try to make your point. Acknowledge their point of view, and try to engage them in a solution.

urther details about Barbara Bissonnette and her work and the services she offers can be found at: www.forwardmotion.info

Managing with Asperger Syndrome