I have never been a particularly social “animal”. This was certainly the case when I went into the world of work: my job and socialising were, in my eyes, two completely separate things!
Since learning about my Asperger syndrome (AS) ten years ago however, what has become increasingly apparent to me throughout my career is the importance of socialising from both a career and a business effectiveness perspective. As a consequence I have made reading about the subject a major personal development objective.
Socialising for Success: The Practical Guide to Perfecting Your Social Skills by Clare Walker (Crown House Publishing) was one of the first books I read. It’s a simple introduction to the subject and contains and looks at the key elements, as well as providing, some basic exercises to get people acquiring associated techniques in this area.
The book starts by stating that “everyone can learn to socialise via a set of skills that are in your grasp”. Probably true, but not quite so straightforward for someone with Asperger. However, the next point is pertinent and vital: “if anyone wants to learn!”
According to the author, the skills required are simply a combination of behaviours, strategies, thought patterns and beliefs which, if linked together, produce the belief and confidence to make the initial steps.
Importantly though, the author then goes onto to make a point that relates very closely to having Asperger syndrome and socialising: that you should only act when doing so in accordance with what you feel comfortable with”. Its this point that has enabled me personally to make worthwhile progress in this area.
Success is defined as any outcome that will improve your life. For me in a work context this has been to try and mitigate the insularity that my AS affords in the workplace, reduce barriers and get along more closely with colleagues. Doing so has meant that I can accrue the significant benefits that I have become increasingly aware that enhanced relations can offer.
Much is said in the world of work about the importance networking. As Socialising for Success states, networking is about getting to know other people to take you towards a specific goal. However, to do this means being able to socialise so as to take advantage of networking opportunities.
I can concur heavily with this. Having had to go through the process of job searching via traditional search techniques such as speculative letters and employment agencies who are interested only in “inflexible briefs”, I have often been frustrated watching how other colleagues seemingly walk effortlessly from one role to another as a result of their networking skills.
How can I do this if I am not a natural socialiser as well as having the added consideration of needing to accommodate my AS? Well, encouragingly the author highlights another requirement – the importance of simply “being yourself”. Only by doing this can you project sincerity to others.
Being sincere and honest is, of course, second nature to someone with AS. If you are according to Walker, others will respond accordingly with offers of help. If you don’t, and act in a way that is incongruent with your true personality, others will sense it and unconsciously withdraw.
The trick is to develop a socialising style that is comfortable to you and your personality. “If you don’t like wearing red, don’t do so”.
I can certainly concur with the next point: that successful socialising is a process and one that cannot be achieved overnight. It begins before an event and continues long after it. If you believe it will be arduous, it will be. However, if you make a start, and overcome initial reticence and uncertainty, then you will be able to make increasingly positive progress.
To do this you need to change existing negative beliefs even though you may find this hard or even feel uncomfortable about doing so. If you are open to change, it will gradually proliferate. It will take time and patience, but if you believe you can socialise effectively you will.
To achieve this “mental rehearsal” beforehand any event is advocated. This is a technique that I have instigated recently to memorise information more effectively and one which I have found incredibly useful. If I know I am required to attend a seminar for example, I work hard to prepare myself not only of the need to do so but, also, of value and opportunity of going.
The author then makes another point that is highly applicable and re-assuring from an AS perspective. When socialising do not try to read other people’s minds or assume you know what they are thinking. I have sometimes thought that people are viewing me negatively when, later, I have found it not to be the case. I have learnt that it is important not to allow my [AS] condition to automatically dictate that, if people are cold or distant towards me, that it is me who is inter-personally at fault.
I also try, as the book suggests, to talk about my good points when socialising to accentuate the positives of my personality. Thinking before interacting can help promulgate positively the key message I want to communicate and then focus on delivering it.
The ongoing issue of listening then comes up. According to the book a golden rule of socialising is listening to what other people say and not – as is often the case for someone with AS – simply seeking to talk about something of self interest. If you are criticised or make a mistake, view it as a learning opportunity and not something that should be dwelt on. Again, mentally accepting that you will make errors is essential as this is the only way to learn.
The book then moves onto communication and how non-verbal communication dominates most inter-personal interactions.
Building rapport is vital here as people will be drawn to others who are like themselves. This can be done by matching what others do. Techniques such as practicing this in a small way each day and the importance of smiling, offering compliments are then discussed.
However, what is really influential – and pertinent to a person with AS – is listening and concentrating on the other person to really understand them. Be truly interested in others and avoid going off into your own world whilst they are speaking or formulating questions in your own mind prematurely so as not to lose the thread.
When you identify a topic that is pertinent, you can then formulate a question and respond in a way that enables the other person to share their experience fully. This then becomes the basis for developing real rapport with them.
What this is really saying of course is that you need to demonstrate empathy, something which may be harder for someone with AS to innately practice.
To help do this, it is suggested that you work hard to understand where the other person is coming from and reinforce it. Put yourself in their shoes; view as everyone as interesting and an opportunity for you to learn. Useful suggestions are then made about what to do if people are self-centred and willing to talk about themselves only or you need to exit a dialogue without causing offence.
According to the author the best way to develop conversation is to identify “tags”. These indicate where others people’s true interests lie and enable a conversation to be steered into an area that you are comfortable with. Think about what you know about what the other person is talking about and locate “associations” to develop the dialogue. Asking questions about the other person shows interests and is a good way to develop tags.
References are then made to conversational attributes which I believe have hindered me not insignificantly in the past. The first is asking questions if you are unsure about a subject. Previously I have been somewhat reticent about doing this for fear of being viewed as ignorant about something. Doing so, however, has prevented me developing a conversation, my knowledge and, perhaps, sub-consciously, has sent the message to the other party that I am not on their [communication] level.
Knowing when to stop any discourse is also viewed as important. It has often been said that having AS may mean having to “complete the story” which can mean a monologue. Stories or dialogues are compact and engage the other party by allowing them to interject and become involved and so it is important that these facets are allowed to engage.
This is especially so I feel in a business or work context when there is a clear need to meet and incorporate the needs of other people. I am conscious therefore of the need to keep my discourse short, punchy and to the point, and also to allow others to interject if there is something pressing that they want to impart.
As previously mentioned, planning for an event is hugely beneficial and the book discusses different “characters” who are pre-disposed against socialising. All these have elements of AS characteristics in them and offer useful insight into mitigating their negative connotations.
Firstly, the “Blocker”. This person is always too busy to socialise when, in effect, they are simply using it as an excuse not to do so! It must be countered and allocating 10% of your time to socialising per week is advocated to overcome it.
Secondly, the “Withholder”. People here are pleasant but don’t divulge or become involved. They never accept invitations and so others’ never really get to know them. This provides a sense of security rather than a fear of “giving away too much” in case things are used against them later.
The author states that Withholders have to be continually asked and that, personally, they must try to contribute.
This profile matches I believe someone with AS very closely. In a work context I have found that other people will not invite you continually and that you cannot expect them to do so. Refusing invitations to socialise can be hugely detrimental and damaging.
As I have recently posted on the Socialization forum of my website, if someone does invite you initially, you must try to accept. If you can’t, state clearly how disappointed you are and that you very much want to be invited again to negate the possibility of not.
The “Sorter” is someone who rules themselves out of socialising because of preconceptions about themselves: “I’m not good at mixing”- AS ground certainly.
However, if you truly believe you are equal then you can interact providing you respect the other person and build rapport with them.
The former is something I have often reflected on. In the instances where I have encountered difficulties with other people, it has sometimes been as a result of my demonstrating lack of respect for them. Whilst that is a luxury you can perhaps afford in your private life, it is not one that you can enjoy in a professional context.
Shunning others who do not conform to my perception of the way they should act or disrespecting them as people, can be extremely damaging and is a real obstacles for someone with AS. From my perspective I have found it to be a real barrier also to developing harmonious relations.
The flip side of this is always believing you are worthy yourself as an individual. If you are a Sorter who excludes others it may be because you lack confidence or undervalue yourself. This is resonant of course with the low self esteem felt by some of those with AS due to the perception I suspect of “differentness”. It has to be overcome though in order to socialise.
I have fought hard internally to achieve this. To do so, the author advocates focusing on identifying some specific, special beliefs about yourself to be able to convince yourself of your personal quality.
For me this is my fundamental honesty and integrity and, deep down, my inner strength. Knowing this and that my natural style means be true to myself has enabled me to approach different social events and people with real confidence.
I liked the book’s suggestion that events about which one feels especially uncomfortable should be avoided. I feel that this is essential for someone with AS as, if something is enforced, it can exacerbate anxiety and bring about negative reactions internally. If I really don’t want to go to a function, I don’t. However, I am also firm with myself in ensuring that it is really the option of last resort to avoid me withdrawing unjustifiably.
The advice to evaluate the character of any event or the people there I found also useful. If a PIY – Particularly Important Person – is attending, proactively develop your strategy for them beforehand. This is often very pertinent in the business world..
The text then moves onto an area which I have found to be critical: identifying potential hazards. Socialising for Success lists these as drink, loose talk and inappropriate protocol such as leaving an event prematurely or abruptly in an inappropriate fashion – by not formally acknowledging others for example.
Such things can go above what is discreet at an event and inappropriate alcohol use is something that I feel in particular needs to be carefully guarded against. A couple of drinks can really settle the nerves of someone with AS whilst socialising, but can mean a dangerous lowering of defences. I try not to drink alcohol early on and always remain consciously aware of my limits. Though you may be socialising, I have learnt that you are always being judged and under observation!
I liked the suggestion of keeping up-to-date with current knowledge about areas of common and popular interests such as Films, TV and Books and using them as topics of conversation and socialising tools. All are non-contentious and prevent straying into areas that could prove hazardous and tempting for someone with AS.
Perhaps the main technique I will try and absorb from the book though, is keeping my promises. I am pretty certain that my AS has led me to a tendency to prevaricate and put things to one side until I believe they are essential. This has not only lowered my output and productivity, but has also diluted my ability to form important workplace relationships.
As the author says, if you say you are going to do something, do and do it quickly. This will enable you to develop real standing in the eyes of others as they will perceive you as “reliable” and then engage with you more often. This is then likely to lead to more opportunities. If you respond to, and assist others, most will likewise do the same with you.
Whilst the need to “be part of the other person’s world” when interacting is undoubtedly important, and possibly the most valuable technique, what I have personally learnt is ultimately absolutely essential is making the effort. If you can overcome the innate tendency to remain somewhat distant and independent towards other people and network, you will be seen as Walker says as supporting and endorsing them. Its these indirect, subliminal effects that the book points out which I found so insightful.
So, everyone can learn to socialise effectively. I believe that this is true and that it is possible for someone with Asperger syndrome to accrue the subsequent benefits in a work context.
As Clare Walker concludes, the key is “openness” rather than “determination”, something which is not always easy for someone withy AS to practice.
However, it can be done. I have forced myself to go to after work events and to socialise in more subtle and less ostentatious ways – by chatting to someone briefly in an e-mail before addressing the central business message for example.
As I increasingly do socialise, the benefits become more innately apparent to me. Of course, the more I do the easier it becomes – as is the case I have found with all things relating to having AS in the workplace!
Above all the final message of the book is one that I have found always needs to be borne in mind. Socialising is an ongoing exercise and one that never stops.
Socialising for Success: The Practical Guide to Perfecting Your Social Skills
Crown House Publishing Ltd