Dealing with difficult people is never easy. Having Asperger syndrome can make it harder.
I have found that there are certain types of people who present particular difficulties for me: aggressive, critical, unreasonable or complaining personalities.
Inherent within them are associated traits which can also be the source of difficulty: autocracy, morality and – perhaps most pertinently – low or limited intellect. I find people who exude the latter point challenging. Discourse that is irrational and based on non-objective thinking is something I find difficult to comprehend and counter.
Accommodating these difficulties has meant developing strategies to deal with specific types “difficult” people. It has also meant looking critically at myself, and making self-adjustments from my perspective, to mitigate the impact of my condition on other people also, most if who – naturally – do not know or understand what Asperger syndrome is, or can, involve.
In any environment there are going to people that you find it difficult to get along with. This is especially so in a work context.
Interacting with someone who has Asperger syndrome also presents issues for other people. These may be the cause of difficulties, or misunderstandings, with others, some of who are perhaps are not as tolerant or understanding as most.
The following text provides some insight into the type of person I have found difficult to work with, along with some thoughts as to how my condition has possibly impacted also.
Types of Difficult People
Difficult people can come in a number of different guises. In his book The Feeling Good Handbook, (Plume Publishing), David Burns identifies six profiles of difficult personality:
1. “passive-aggressive” – those who simply refuse to acknowledge or talk to you;
2. “aggressors” – those who put people down via hostility, sarcasm or condescension and who relish their power to frustrate and upset others;
3. “argumentative or stubborn” individuals;
4. Those who are either negatively and excessively “critical/judgemental”;
5. People who are “unreasonable”;
6. Constant “complainers”.
When people think of difficult personalities, the aggressor or “bully” often commonly springs to mind.
In my experience as a person with Asperger however, the type of person who has caused me difficulty has not automatically been aggressive or domineering (though some undoubtedly have); indeed, there have been many forceful individuals that I have handled, and got on with, very well.
For me, personalities 2, 4, 5 and 6 listed above all apply, though not always and, sometimes, in different ways and to varying degrees. In other words, who I have found problematic, has not always been the atypical “difficult” person, though throughout my career, I hasten to add, have got along with the majority of my work colleagues.
Looking back, it is perhaps certain types of behavioural trait that has presented difficulties and which are found in varying degrees in the four aforementioned personalities. I have identified four that I think are pertinent to me:
• “Low intellect”;
• “Unfair criticism”;
• “Moral iniquity”.
Personality Traits & their Impact on Asperger syndrome
I have tended to find dealing with people with low levels of intellect difficult.
The reason for this is that their actions are sometimes not based on rational argument, but weak logic and personal ego or power rather than objective analysis. In many cases the people concerned have been aggressive or are “aggressors”.
Aggression is often based on power, the objective of which is often to satisfy a personal requirement or preference irrespective of other people’s input. As this is not based on logic or reason; it is for me, therefore, unfair.
People can be argumentative and project a view I totally disagree with, i.e. argue their case vigorously, but this is something that they are entitled, in my eyes, to do providing it is objective and factually – not personally – based.
If I am dealing with a person with a high or reasonable level of intellect, I usually find that I have a chance of forming a workable relationship, and communicating with, them.
The reason for this is that such personalities are normally prepared to listen to what I am advocating or believe in. I may not agree with their viewpoint, or what they are saying or doing, but I can connect, and communicate, with them.
The major problems I have experienced have tended to arise when I am dealing with managers or people with lower levels of intellect or, perhaps more pertinently, those who may not be intellectually capable but who in the “here and now” are very sharp.
The reasons for this are, I believe, twofold:
i) because of my [AS] tendency to “intellectualise” issues or view scenarios logically or factually, rather than also empathising (incorporating attendant personal emotion) or resonating with others’ alternative mode of thinking. This tests the limited patience of those who do not seek to gauge a situation beyond their view or any alternative possibilities.
ii) the quirks of my personality. i.e. non-neurotypicals are not well understood or tolerated by those with a limited capacity to, or who actually try, to empathise with people who do not conform to their stereotypical requirements.
If I cannot “connect” with someone via logical dialogue, it has also tended to result in outward frustration on my part which, in turn, has the potential to irritate and antagonise others.
The “total autocratic” personality also presents difficulties, due in some ways, to the intellectual factor mentioned above. I dislike inflexible autocracy intensely. I do not believe that has ever been, nor will there ever be, a manager who knows everything.
A good manager, I believe, listens to people, accommodates – though does not always agree with – alternative views. They listen, and then argue their case, before making the ultimate decision which, as the final arbiter, they are entitled to do.
This also accords with traits associated with my Asperger: fairness, respect for the power ones’ authority gives over others and, the intellectual necessity and value of listening and being considerate to alternative perspectives.
Against this, of course, managers have the right to be autocratic and make whatever decisions they see fit for a business. Subordinates do not have the right to dictate that they should do otherwise because of the norm of decision-making power hierarchies. Because of this, accepting extreme cases of autocratic power has for me, been at times difficult.
My current boss is in some ways autocratic. He has very clear views on things and the way that they ought to be done. However, he is a highly intelligent man and always listens, is prepared to accommodate other views and approaches and seeks to argue his case. He may ultimately not side with the views of others, but that is his prerogative.
For someone with Asperger syndrome, this outlook is in many ways ideal. I can argue my case and, being intelligent, my manager appreciates the need to listen to, and appraise, what I have to say.
He is also an “output” manager. He looks at what the final result is in terms of performance, which means he is prepared to allow licence in terms of personal modus operandi. He evaluates what is ultimately done, not what is said, how one acts or how one goes about delivering! For someone with an unconventional way of working because of my condition, this is invaluable.
The total autocratic on the other hand I have found, refuses to listen, has a one-track mode of thinking and operating and will not consider any method other than their own. Subordinates also have to conform totally to their perception as to how things are done.
For someone with Asperger I find this anxiety provoking. With one manager I worked for, everything needed to be done five minutes previously, even if it was largely impossible. From my experience, such managers also tend to look at not what is actually done, but more how much “noise” is made by – generally – dominant personalities that they resonate and empathise with. In other words, judgement is made on personal [subjective] – not [objective] performance – factors.
There often tends to be a bullying element with total autocrats. As this is illogical to my mode of thinking (i.e. counterproductive in a commercial context) and anathema to the fairness inherent within my AS character, I tend to object – and react – to it.
Autocratic behaviour, when it is not personal but based on commercial considerations, is on the other hand, something that I can come to terms with internally as I can understand why it may at times be necessary, (if there is a serious financial crisis for example).
Unfair criticism presents unique problems for me. I can accept criticism providing it is factual not personal, and is constructive not negative. I struggle to accept negative criticism, especially in a commercial context, as criticism morally should be, in my eyes, objective. That is not always the case of course; in fact, it is often the opposite.
Often I have found that criticism is aligned to status. Every person has the right to pass criticism; especially if they are a senior manager with ultimate responsibility for critical business decisions and commercial outcomes.
The logicality of my thinking and attendant sense of fairness, have meant however, that I take exception to those higher up being negatively critical or asserting that I have to be overly subservient to them personally. The latter simply relates to egos.
If someone higher up is respectful towards me, and bases any criticism fairly on performance, then I can accept that and respond positively.
If it is a case of being told – albeit sub-consciously – via the “hidden agenda” of having to be in tow on a personal basis to that manager, then I have tended to display distain and may react negatively. This I have found, can seriously affront others and become a source of real tension and problems later, and is something that I have had to adjust to and accept.
• Moral Iniquity
Allied to the last point is morality. People in a work context have a duty in my view to act “ethically”. Aspects such as personal performance should be solely based on objective facts.
Morality and commercial requirements do not always make easy bed fellows. However, my pronounced sense of “right and wrong” has sometimes antagonised managers who do share my perception of ethicacy.
As with most of the difficulties I have encountered in the workplace as a result of my Asperger, I try to start from the position that prevention is better than cure.
If I am having difficulties dealing with somebody, I try to begin with to empathize more closely with them. If I disagree with a decision or action they make that impacts upon me, I ask in a friendly way why they have chosen to do so. In other words, I enquire about the action not the person.
Sometimes criticism is based on me as a person. Here, I have found it helpful to ask myself if there is any truth in the criticism and, if so, acknowledge that to the other person. This establishes a degree of compromise.
In the past, this has been something that my condition has made it very hard to do. Just because I may be reserved in some situations due to the anxiety I may feel from feeling unsure in a new environment, it does not actually mean that I am being arrogant as others sometimes have perceived.
If people still “thwart” or refuse to respond to my positive questions, I try not to become outwardly confrontational as I have done, at times, in the past. Instead I maintain the same approach of objectively re-iterating my point to avoid antagonising the other person. This is being assertive whilst retaining control and so prevents the other party resorting to personal criticism or negative, confrontational tactics themselves.
Another factor that I have found to be incredibly important for someone with Asperger syndrome, is not to be negatively self-judgemental or automatically blame myself.
In the past I have tended to assume that, because of my condition, I must be in some way to blame or to have antagonised the other person in some way initially. This is not to say that I am not totally honest with myself or ask searching questions: if I have contributed detrimentally in any way, I need to acknowledge it; but, likewise, I should not automatically accept blame where it is unjustified. To do the latter requires retaining self-composure whilst projecting myself assertively.
I have also developed more specific strategies for dealing with the personalities I have identified as being especially problematic for me:
• “Aggressors” (non-Intellectuals)
Here it is especially important: a) not to antagonise these people initially and; b) not to automatically assume self-blame.
Reacting means losing control and showing disrespect for them and their view. This is counterproductive as it makes opposing any unfair criticism or behaviour more difficult by bringing a personal element into the equation.
Instead, I try to empathize wherever possible but also be persistent in confronting unacceptable behaviour by using the anti-thwarting tactic described above. It is important, and essential, to establish “boundaries” towards what is for me unacceptable behaviour.
In extreme cases dealing with aggressors may require courage and a determination for someone with Asperger to confront someone, along with a willingness to even take legal redress, whilst being aware of the potential – negative – consequences of confronting someone more senior.
Here I firstly ask questions of myself: am I not listening to the other party or, perhaps, not even trying to (maybe because of my own dislike of them personally).
Here I have found it is important to select the right moment when trying to communicate with them. If this type of personality is hyped up, they will almost certainly not listen. Waiting for when they are calmer usually provides a better opportunity to assert my position.
What I have found also essential with such personalities is to ensure that I acknowledge that they have some form of valid point initially. They will usually think they are right, so it is important to let them know you believe they are so in some way.
My Asperger – and perception of my self esteem – dictate that what others think about is important.
By asking for the opinion of others – and so, in a way, inviting criticism, makes me less defensive and able to cope more effectively with it. In other words, I am dealing with the criticism on my terms.
This enables me to express my feelings in a non-defensive way and assert my right to defend myself against the criticism. It is also the best way for me to counter the other person’s criticism by refuting it using facts.
• Moral Iniquity
My Asperger means I genuinely like to help others. However, I have come to understand that there are times when I need to not approach others and leave them be. The reason being is that I may be construed as interfering, albeit unconsciously.
In addition, questioning others’ ethically, or trying to deflect criticism of the perception that I am not accepted or liked by doing “good turns” for others when they do not want them, can cause resentment.
I have found that being totally honest with myself and acknowledging my own shortcomings in this area, makes me less concerned and irritated by the actions of others. Sometimes I have to say that I too have not always with hindsight acted with complete proprietary.
If I still believe that someone is acting immorally, explaining to them why I believe they are in a dispassionate, non-judgemental way I have found is the best path. Looking back on my career, there have actually been very few cases where I believe others have acted unethically and, overall, refusing to be drawn into this area is the best practice.
“Difficult” people will always exist for me in the workplace, though how difficult I find them depends to a large degree on how I perceive them.
I can deal with difficult people, but only if I make personal adjustments also. In fact, in many ways, doing so is a pre-requisite for implementing the strategies I have devised to accommodate difficult people. Central to this, is understanding how my Asperger can impact upon them.