Updated: May, 2015
Have you ever been talking to another person and you suddenly realize you're talking too much about something really interesting to you - but something that may not be all that interesting to him? I think the majority of us have had, and continue to have, these experiences from time to time. Once we realize what's happening, we try to shift and pull our attention away from the "me-focused" discussion to ask questions to our communicative partner or follow the lead to discuss a topic interesting to her. Without realizing it, we understand the idea that being with others is a sort of social see-saw where we try to maintain a balance between attending to others' interests and needs while also getting a chance to share information about ourselves or our interests.
How about this one?
Have you ever found yourself sharing knowledge or giving instructions to someone based on your knowledge—but no one actually asked you to give this level of information or instruction?
Again, many of us have had this experience from time to time. I'm finding that a number of my adult clients actually get stuck in this rut a lot of the time. The wife of one of my clients described her husband as getting stuck in an "information vortex." And, it's not the really obviously socially challenged adults I'm describing there. I'm talking about very nuanced-challenged individuals who blend in well, so we (communication partner) hold them to high social expectations.
In Social Thinking we start by avoiding assumptions, which means we don't assume our academically brightest clients know how to problem solve their social encounters and social snafus. Too many of our clients are not appreciated for their raw intelligence, keen sense of humor and desire to help others and the companies for whom they work. Instead, they report being considered offensive because we (neurotypicals) are fussy about how people talk to us.
To help our adult clients better understand social encounters, whether on or off the job, I've been developing a new strategy called, "What your role?" I typically start by introducing something like the lesson below and then it evolves through our sessions together. It's been a valuable enough lesson that I'm now using the same strategy with my high school students.
"What's your role?" is based on certain unspoken "social norms" that I review before starting the lesson:
- None of us personally get to decide if we - ourselves- are using good social skills. Our social communication partners and people who may be observing us (even if we are not directly communicating with them) are the deciders about us. How others perceive your social skills is a judgment and not a test score!
- When we are communicating with and/or being observed by others, people and the situation silently assigns a role to us. It's our job to notice or figure out our assigned role and adapt our communication skills to function within that specific social role. Here are some examples of what I mean by this:
- If you are sitting in a meeting at work, your obvious (or assigned) role is to be a good listener. If/when you communicate within this situation, you are typically sharing information, ideas, reporting on your experience, your job, etc. Your role shifts into an "information informer."
- If you are hanging out with friends or coworkers during lunchtime in the same room where the above-mentioned meeting was held, you are now all assigned the role of primarily being "social relaters." At times, you'll assume the role of "information informer" if someone asks you -in the context of building the social relationship- to describe something you did or expand on something you know. In this situation, you would be aware of keeping your information sharing brief and to the point as you are soon expected to jump back into the role of social relater! Our roles can shift quickly and seamlessly.
- If you are teaching a class to high school students, you assume the role of sharing information. If a student speaks in class as part of the classroom discussion, then that student also assumes the same role of information sharer. In fact, in a classroom-based discussion, everyone in the class is expected to be an "information informer." If at the end of class you've wrapped up your teaching and there are a few spare minutes to just relate to one another before the bell rings, your role now shifts to being a social relater. If you began teaching a new lesson during this time you would likely be glared at and possibly ignored by your students!
- If you ask your partner/spouse to help solve a technology problem on your computer, you are assigning your partner the role of being an information informer. If you are talking about how much you like doing something and your partner or friend tells you better ways you can do that same activity, you may be heading into a conflict. You may have privately assigned this person the role of social relater—you were trying to talk about things you enjoyed– but the other person assumed the role information informer. You can see how this can get tricky!
It's this last example that summarizes a number of my clients' persistent problems in communicating with others. They participate in social exchanges based on the role they have assigned themselves (and feels most natural to them) instead of thinking about the role assigned by the communication partner.
While many of us may have experienced assuming the role of the information informer when we were supposed to be social relaters, or vice-versa, we typically make these errors infrequently so people don't monitor our mistakes too closely. That's not the case with my clients. The frequency with which they make this social faux pas puts them in a place of social purgatory. Why? It's because neurotypicals consider this behavior very offensive. In fact, the primary complaint I hear about my adult clients is that they are offensive to others. Yet, this is not their intention!
Consider the following example that represents a common scenario (across different types of jobs) reported by many of my adult clients in the workforce. "Susan" represents the role of my clients.
Susan is welcoming a fellow teacher who is new to the school, but not new to teaching. She introduces herself and learns that the new teacher will be teaching algebra. Susan immediately tells the new teacher how she teaches algebra, and suggests she should do it that way also. The new teacher smiles at Susan, thanks her for the information, and walks away thinking Susan is condescending and arrogant. As the new teacher makes friends with other teachers in the school, she speaks in a manner that is less than kind about Susan. Susan has had similar interactions with other coworkers and senses she is not well liked by her peers. Her supervisor is also aware of the interactions and asks Susan to be "more friendly" to the others. Susan is confused! In her mind, she had been very helpful to the new employee and other teachers, which she was being very friendly. After all from her viewpoint, she was helping them!
The problem was not that Susan avoided speaking to others. The real issue is that she assumed the wrong role (Information Informer) in that particular situation!
In our treatment sessions with adult clients we delve into exploring the social expectations of each partner in the exchange, and have found that talking about the presumed versus assigned roles has been enlightening. We teach awareness to the fact that all have assigned roles within interactions and the key is to figure out their role and then adapt based on different situations. As this becomes more comfortable, we work on helping them to self-monitor how their behavior is complimenting the assigned role or working in contrast to it. At this point clients are also noticing that they get annoyed when other people do not stick to the roles they have quietly assigned to their communicative partners! As with everything social, our thoughts, assumptions, and expectations are two-way streets.