Listening is an innate skill and one that occurs naturally for most people most of the time.
For someone with Asperger syndrome however, listening skills are less well developed or, perhaps more pertinently, selectively practised dependent on the subject under discussion.
A person with AS will tend to listen predominantly to what interests, and is regarded as relevant to, them.
Effective listening for all information is essential in a business context. Identifying and retaining important data is a pre–requisite in order to operate efficiently as a manager. This means listening to, and retaining, all information – including that which is of direct interest and outside of what is related to individual areas of responsibility and operation.
There are however issues relating to Asperger which make listening fully and effectively to all required information more difficult and problematic.
* Listening Predominantly to What is Only Relevant and of Interest Personally
When subject matter is of interest, and when deemed relevant to the Asperger mind, information will be very effectively received, coded and retained. When not, it may be largely ignored, disregarded or, at best, only coded superficially.
* Shorter Attention Span & Concentration Levels
For much of the time levels of concentration and attention are likely to be lower than with other people. For tasks deemed largely unimportant, or with subject matter outside of areas of interest, this may be especially exaggerated.
* Focus & Cognitive Distraction
There may be a tendency to drift mentally and to cognitively think about subject matter unconnected and unrelated with the topic under discussion. This loss of focus can cause important information to be passed over and missed.
* “Top Line” Listening Only
Any listening and information assimilation may be “top line” only. A concept or initial argument may be interpreted prematurely before fully explained or completed, meaning that concepts and issues are not fully or effectively understood and recorded.
As a result, someone with AS may withdraw mentally from a dialogue early in – say – a meeting having assumed that a subject is understood when not.
* Non-Verbal Communication
Non-verbal communication may be either absent or limited from both participating parties’ perspective.
For a person with Asperger, noticing and taking on board the body language and non-verbal communication demonstrated by the opposing person may be limited due to natural restrictions in understanding such behaviour, and the need to concentrate cognitively on the discourse being delivered.
From the opposing person’s perspective, absence of such communication may indicate a lack of interest, concentration or willingness to try and understand.
Communication is, therefore, a two way process and not the one-sided affair typically practised by someone with Asperger syndrome. This is impractical and impossible to maintain in a business context. Understanding and acknowledging this is the starting point for a manager with AS for improved and effective communication.
Listening for all people is difficult to do properly and takes great concentration and tenacity to do all the time. However, in business situations developing this skill is essential.
Listening definitively is to hearken: to not only listen, but to hear attentively, to pay attention, to heed, to seek by enquiry. This means actively listening to others, their views and opinions.
Central to this is that listening can take more than one form, each of which needs to be understood and appreciated.
* Superficial Listening
This may often apply to someone with Asperger syndrome. It is where the thread of a message only is picked up – the “top line” or broad understanding and which is devoid of much or the complete – detail.
As a result, any concept or message is not really absorbed and conversation is very much one-way.
* Listening for Information
Here all data such as facts and figures are picked up on and recorded, but awareness and understanding of related feelings and emotions are absent.
Any dialogue here is more two-way and reciprocal, but will not automatically address related interpersonal issues such as the rectification of pleas and concerns or associated symptoms by an opposing party.
* Listening for Feelings and Emotions
This is true, real and effective listening. It involves understanding and appreciation of the personal issues behind the words. In other words, the emotion driving behaviour and discourse!
Listening here will include incorporation of non-verbal signals and language and the use of effective questioning to get to the bottom of an issue to ascertain the real cause of an issue or problem.
Pertinent, related questions will include why this is happening or why an individual is feeling or acting in a particular way. Such questioning and activity ensures that the other person feels valued and important.
Each of these listening facets need to be addressed and improved upon by a manager with AS.
* Superficial Listening
Listening only superficially is inadequate and insufficient in a business context for a variety of reasons. It will probably mean important information being missed and colleagues becoming frustrated and alienated by the inability to fully account for and absorb important data.
Potentially more hazardous is the danger that listening only superficially and appearing indifferent to fellow managers, their views and arguments’ will induce friction and hostility.
Cognitive conditioning to retain concentration and focus throughout meetings and any dialogue is necessary.
This is especially important at the beginning of any discourse, meeting or interaction. Failure to assimilate initial data or viewpoints will mean that essential appreciation and understanding of the overall issue to start with will be absent. This will mean that later dialogue and subject matter will be, at best, taken out of context or, at worse, that fundamental and complete understanding becomes impossible.
* Concentrate hard initially to grasp understanding and meaning of the underlying concept.
Retain concentration on an ongoing basis to ensure that all information is coded and assimilated. Writing notes as meetings or conversations proceed is an effective method to support this and provides reference for later referral and revision.
To assist in concentration over longer periods, cognitively focus and condition yourself to not allow the mind to wander and stay on the subject or issue under discussion. If the mind does begin to drift, cognitively take note and force yourself to re-focus and return to what is important immediately.
* Insist on remaining mentally focused on the issue in question, and that issue only, when in meetings or conversations.
A useful way of training to improve skills in this area is to do so with tasks outside a work environment. Take small steps at a time; watch a half hour television programme for example and then practice information recall afterwards. Seek to improve concentration and information retention incrementally further on each occasion via continued exercise of this method.
Write notes after each session to see how much relevant information has been recorded and retained. Compare with a trusted colleague in, or with a friend outside, work to gauge effectiveness.
* Listening for Information
Record data and facts either mentally or in writing during meetings and inter-personal communications. Try harder, in particular, to achieve the former.
In addition, consider what and why a person is saying something and do not automatically interpret literally. Why is a person saying what they are and what is its relevance and authenticity in relation to their position, their duties and responsibilities and – where they are coming from.
* Listening for Feelings & Emotions
The hardest and most difficult, yet the most important listening requirement for a manager with AS!
Listening here means empathising, understanding emotions and non-verbal behaviour – all the things that come least naturally for someone with Asperger syndrome.
The starting point for improvement in this area is to implement a number of techniques.
* Cognitive conditioning to effectively understand – and appreciate – the need to empathise. In other words, accepting that there is an important need to try and understand others and making it a personal development priority to do so.
Reflective listening helps to achieve this. It involves effective hearing of another person and their feelings.
* Listening from a first person perspective is doing so from your viewpoint;
* Listening from the second person perspective is from the viewpoint of a
Reflective listening means moving into a second person perspective to effectively understand the other person. Without a concerted, conscious effort to place oneself in the position of another person, effective empathy and understanding of the viewpoint of a third person will be impossible. Without true empathy, implementing the changes as a manager to bring about improved output and performance will not be realisable either.
* Empathise with others: put yourself in their position both mentally and practically.
Communication also involves non-verbal activity such as body language.
The less demonstrative, more rigid prose and limited physical response actions of a person with Asperger mean that non-verbal communication is much more limited. The negatives – and dangers – associated with this have been previously listed above.
“Active listening” involves indicating to an opposite party understanding of their communication which, in turn, gives the opportunity to adjust the communication further. Non-verbal communication is an essential part of this process.
As a person with AS does not automatically engage in such non-verbal communication, it is important to develop the skill to ensure that another person receives acknowledgement personally and confirmation that their view and discourse has been received effectively.
This is especially important in a management context to ensure retention of support and working relationships with colleagues; to assimilate alternative views, many of which may be beneficial to both yourself and the organisation and, also, to facilitate an effective political process.
Among the techniques that can deliver effective non-verbal communication is retaining eye contact (whilst refraining from staring) for the majority of the time and of sending physical signals that information and views are being taken on board by nodding the head gently to indicate agreement.
“Matching” involves adapting body language to that of others to achieve reciprocation. The greater the difference in body language the harder communication becomes.
If “mismatching” is apparent there is the risk that the opposite party will “think” the other person is not really listening. Rapport occurs when both parties are aligned consciously and unconsciously with each other.
* Practice these techniques outside of the workplace. Engage with close friends and associates in conversation and ask for feedback on whether they have received effective non-verbal communication.
* Observe others and the non-verbal behaviour they demonstrate. Actively watch how other successful managers perform in meetings and in one-to-one communication situations in order to learn effective non-verbal communication techniques.
Negative Communication and Criticism.
At times reflective listening will inevitably mean hearing negatives including ones about the self.
For a person with AS this may be unsettling and de-motivating. However, all managers, especially those seeking to improve in order to operate effectively will be faced with negativisms.
Acknowledging this unavoidable management fact, and cognitively preparing for it by accepting that it is not personally orientated or unique to a person with AS, is the starting point for dealing with negative communication effectively.
* Accept that negative feedback goes with the territory and is part of the job and view is at an opportunity to learn and move forward.
Effective listening is an essential pre-requisite for a manager. It is also one that, for someone with Asperger, may well be largely absent.
However, it is a skill that can be relatively easily acquired and practised given determination and persistence. Cognitive insistence and acceptance of the need to listen is the start point.
Practice listening carefully in work and non-work situations. Start small with limited time periods and then work up. Concentrate hard – especially initially – to focus in the subject matter in hand and make written notes to augment long-term retention.
Continued practice will sub-consciously improve performance over time.
(it is recommended that this section be read in close association with Memory).