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Five Tips to Encourage Social Relatedness

Michelle Garcia Winner

Dec 15, 2015

Five Tips to Encourage Social Relatedness

We hope you are in the midst of enjoying the wonder and love shared during the holiday season. We thank you being part of our community! 


Fundamentally, Social Thinking is all about teaching or offering frameworks and strategies to help people learn to be actively involved members of any community they wish to join. Most of our newsletters are focused along these lines.


Yet, this holiday message is taking us in a different direction. Rather than focus on what we can teach our students to be more actively engaged during the holiday season, we’re looking at what you can do to help someone who is not appearing to be showing interest in relating to others. After all, isn’t part of the holiday season all about participating in a community that exudes a sense of caring and compassion? 


Many of my clients are adults, some live alone – all are lonelier than they prefer. All wish to be more successful in whatever situation they have to socially navigate. I try to consider life from their point of view, and what I can do to help. It’s not always our job to “teach” –some of our time with our clients is about emotional engagement, relaxing together and helping everyone be included. This requires us, the professional, parent, or friend, to think about how we’re sharing space with people with social learning challenges, and re-thinking our own personal social assumptions we have that may make it difficult to engage with a person who is not naturally showing interest in us. 


Yes, our clients or friends with social learning challenges may struggle to communicate with us, but we also make it harder for them to do so! Given our deeply rooted social presumptions, we likely interpret their behavior as not being interested in talking to us or we may feel insulted that they don’t show interest in us! For this reason alone, we reject making an effort to include them in discussions because we think they simply want to be left alone. Or we perceive them as “too selfish” to care about anyone else’s thoughts and ideas! 


I think our lack of social outreach has a lot to do with our own desire to communicate with people who keep us comfortable!  


So I was thinking- what if I shared with you what I have learned from my clients that may widen your perspective about why a person who is standing near a group, but not entering the group, really does want to be included! 


The following 5 tips encourage you to “put yourself in their shoes”… to go deeper in thinking about life from their viewpoint. Doing so may help you avoid making the wrong assumption at a holiday party, family dinner or community gathering (even a meeting at work) about folks who may be standing or seated near us but don’t seem to be actively relating to people around them. What may their anti-social behavior mean? It may very well mean that they actually are hoping you will go talk to them! 


Tip 1: Avoid assuming people don’t want to talk to you or be included in a group!

Every one of my clients and friends with social learning challenges wants to be included, validated, and enjoyed by others. 


Every one of my clients wants to make a good impression on others. This may be counter to how you are “reading them” in the moment, but it’s true. In my 30+ years of working with clients, not a single one has told me they like making bad impressions on people. 


This means you need to assume positive versus negative social intention! If you know or suspect a person has a social learning difficulty, assume that person has a socially positive intention, rather than a socially negative intention.


If a person has made the (sometimes herculean) effort to be in the community or participate in a scheduled event such as an office party or a holiday event, they do want to communicate with you. 


Avoid assuming that a person who is looking down or looking anywhere except at people, or is struggling to keep his body in the group is deliberately trying to avoid talking to people. It’s probably just not so.


Most of my clients struggle to initiate communication; that doesn’t mean they don’t want to communicate! Keep in mind what my friend Dr. Ross Greene says, “A person would if they could!”


Tip 2: Assume people are more interested in you than they can demonstrate. 

It’s so easy to assume that when people are talking to you but not about you, that means they are not interested in you. When talking to folks who are not meeting your social needs, cut them some slack. Listen to what they have to say and then add your own thoughts about who you are and what you enjoy. Don’t wait for them to ask you – help them learn about you! Truly, they are interested in you – they simply didn’t get that intuitive social learning ability that you were likely born with and can call upon so effortlessly. 


Tip 3: Assume people who complain a lot about things going on around them are simply trying to maintain a connection with those who are near them.

Unfortunately, too many of my clients are actively rejected or ignored across the school or work day. They may share space with others and yet not a single person reaches out to communicate with them. Given these clients still have a desire to be acknowledged/validated by others, some of my clients unconsciously discover that if they complain about things or do unexpected negative behaviors, people are more likely to respond to them.


Unfortunately, we tend to respond more quickly to people when they use “unexpected” behavior rather than “expected behavior.” For example, consider the person who complains to you about how bad their day is going. Most of us feel compelled to show interest (empathize) with their negative experience. However, we are not nearly as likely to ask someone to tell us more about their day when they tell us it is “fine.” Our client’s complaints can lead to immediate short bursts of social engagement, which is reinforcing to them so they repeat that behavior. Yet our clients may not notice the pattern developing… that this type of ongoing engagement can wear out their listener who develops compassion fatigue! Bottom line, people who complain a lot may likely experience more people actively rejecting spending time with them. They then feel the rejection which leads them into more circles of complaints.


What can you do? Engage in the positive rather than the negative. Point out what you like about what they are doing, have done, what you remember about them, what they are interested in, etc.  Use your best efforts to turn this cycle around by simply attending to someone who seems alone or lonely, before they seek attention through complaint.  


Tip 4: Remember that a lot of our clients’ social challenges have to do with how we (you, me or us) interpret their behavior. 

Since we all want people to be interested in each of us, we tend to reject people who don’t show us they like us or want to listen to what we have to say. We don’t really stop and think, “Hmm, do they know how to show me this?” Or, “Maybe I’m the one who’s being boring in this conversation?”


We can help a person with social learning challenges develop more pro-social communication skills by being willing to do some of this work ourselves! Let’s get over our own communicative hump by lowering our exceedingly high expectations for how we are to be treated and reach out to connect with a person who is being socially left behind. 


During this or any upcoming holiday season be proactive in including a kid, teen, or adult who looks like they are not interested in you. Assume they are interested; start by talking to them about their interests, their ideas. Accept that they may not have the skill to turn the conversation around and show a lot of interest in you once you communicate with them. Let that be okay, and know they are enjoying your attention and in this way you are encouraging them to see that people do want to include them and help them feel good as well. 


Tip 5: Your attention is a compliment and perhaps a gift. Know that  your outreach makes a difference in our clients’ lives. 

Think about it: the biggest compliment we give each other is our attention. This season give the gift of your attention to someone who struggles to give it to you. It’s free and it’s the kindest thing we do for each other. 


Today, tomorrow, throughout the remaining days of this holiday season and throughout the next year, reach out to show you care for someone who by limitations in their neurology, struggles to show you the same. By doing something that for you may be simple, you are providing them with a gift that is person-to-person, shoulder-to–shoulder, and face-to-face: you’re validating another’s existence. It’s priceless. 


We hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season with your friends and family,  whether it’s this month, during the Chinese New Year, or at some other time…


May we all find peace on earth and goodwill toward mankind. 


Michelle

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