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If only I knew then what I know now. If only I had been more socially competent growing up than I had been in reality. There were so many missed opportunities, friendships and relationships that might have materialized but didn’t, opportunities for building self-esteem that eluded me, bullying episodes that I might have avoided, and whatever else I missed out on. If only…
At least in part because of Asperger’s syndrome, I have had to deal with deficiencies in self-awareness, in awareness of others around me, in social skills, and, in social competence. Gradually, I was able to chip away at these deficiencies through self-discovery and help from others, and eventually I met my wife who encouraged me to pursue the Social Thinking® Methodology after she had learned about it from my autistic son’s speech-language pathologist.
And so, my journey toward social competence took a quantum leap forward when I started to learn about the principles of Social Thinking with my speech-language pathologist, and it continues to this day. Here are a few key concepts which are integral to Social Thinking’s vision of social competence and from which I have greatly benefited:
- Social competency starts with self-awareness. Only then can we become socially aware of others, make friends with others and live happier, meaningful lives. You can’t truly connect with others if you are disconnected from yourself. Growing up, I lived in a state of relative self-unawareness, largely because I let my obsession with pleasing others and my fear of not being liked dictate how I conducted myself in social situations. As a result, I didn’t do enough of the hard work in learning who I was, in developing a sense of what I believed in and what was important to me. Furthermore, I didn’t advocate very often for my own interests, thinking that doing so would be viewed as selfish. I couldn’t figure out why I struggled to form substantive friendships in light of all of my efforts to be likeable. This struggle stemmed from me not being aware, until a therapist explained it to me one day, that I was coming off as dishonest toward others because I wasn’t being true to myself. In other words, I had been too likeable, too eager to please, unable to recognize most social cues from those with whom I interacted, and therefore, not genuine toward others. Though I have managed to make a few good friends with people who saw the good in me and who were able to look past my social challenges, in retrospect, I’m certain that I could have earned more friends and respect from more people had I been more self-aware. Clearly, social skills alone (being likeable, for example) are not sufficient when working to earn friends. You also need to be honest with yourself and not live your life for others.
- Social competency requires social observational and interpretive skills, particularly with respect to body language and facial expression. Recently, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation at a public restaurant whereby a stranger stared at me for a prolonged period of time more than once, and for no apparent reason. I was able to observe this man’s actions discretely, interpret what I thought they meant, and act accordingly. These were non-hostile, emotionless, “blank” stares, and he was sitting perfectly still at his table, so I reached the conclusion that as long as I kept my distance, ate my dinner peacefully and did not make any eye contact, I would be able to finish my meal and exit the restaurant without incident. Fortunately, my interpretation of the situation was spot on.
While being stared at, I figured that I might have said something that bothered this man, or that I reminded him of somebody he knew, or that maybe he had social challenges that influenced his behavior. I will never know why he behaved as he did, though thankfully, being able to observe and interpret his facial expressions and body language were sufficient in helping me avoid getting into trouble. I left the restaurant feeling proud of myself for handling the situation the way I did.
- People with strong social skills are able to adapt their behavior based on their knowledge of other people involved and on the nature of the situation at hand. The lunch room at my workplace carries with it a set of hidden rules that are based on social expectations that people have of others while there. These expectations include expressing an interest in the personal lives of co-workers and knowing not to talk when doing so would be disruptive to other conversations going on in the lunch room.
Before I understood the concept of hidden rules, I violated each of these expectations all too often. I would often sit in the lunch room hyper-focused on what I was eating, not saying much of anything to anybody. And, from time to time I would make a comment that wasn’t directly relevant to the topic of discussion. Looking back in hindsight, it doesn’t surprise me that I felt less connected to my co-workers then than I do now. I am certain that my conduct in the lunch room had something to do with this.
As a result of the work I have been doing around the principles of Social Thinking, I am now aware of and understand the concepts of hidden rules and social expectation. One day in the lunch room I started to put these concepts to work and have done so regularly since that day. Nowadays while I’m there, I will leverage the knowledge I have of my co-workers and initiate conversations with them about their lives outside of work. They always respond favorably toward me when I do so. One of my colleagues and I found common ground as a result of idle chit chat. We both have a child on the autism spectrum. Now, I regularly ask her how her daughter is doing, and we share stories of our kids’ triumphs and hardships. She appreciates it when I express an interest in her and her daughter’s lives, and I appreciate it when she does the same with respect to my son and me. I do the same with other colleagues when I see them in the lunch room, using what I know about them to initiate conversation.
- Socially competent people are aware of what Social Thinking calls the “social-emotional chain reaction”: we act, others around us feel a certain way based on our action, they treat us accordingly, and how they treat us influences how we feel about them and about ourselves. Back in high school, when I was essentially living in my own sphere of reality, my classmates knew many things that I didn’t know. One of those things was where a beloved member of the school staff always parked his car. One day, I unknowingly parked my car in his spot, in part because there was no sign telling me that the spot was off limits, and also because of what I call “tunnel vision”, a symptom of my Asperger’s profile whereby I notice, to the exclusion of all else, only what I must notice to do what I need to do. And so, a firestorm ensued, and because I was emotionally very vulnerable back then, because I had no knowledge of the social-emotional chain reaction, and because I was unable to anticipate the intensity of other people’s emotions as a result of my mistake, I was significantly hurt, so much so that this incident has been seared into my memory cells.
That day, several of my classmates were very disappointed in me, and one faculty member literally screamed at me at the top of his lungs in front of others. I ended up feeling that my classmates were justified in how they felt, and so my general opinion of them did not change. However, I ended up feeling intense anger toward the faculty member who harshly singled me out and humiliated me in front of the school community, thinking that he should have handled the situation in a more responsible fashion. To this day, I have not fully gotten past my anger toward him. I also felt ashamed of myself and extremely self-critical; how could I have not known something that probably most folks at school knew? After this incident, I certainly became more visually aware of my surroundings, one of several lessons I have had to learn the hard way.
So many strong emotions in me and in others as a result of an uninformed decision about a parking spot! Go figure! This was certainly an epic case in point of the social-emotional chain reaction in my Asperger’s youth.
- If you are able to understand the meaning behind other people’s actions, you can tailor your behavior toward others in a way that positively affects their thoughts about you. This concept is essential to my work in information technology sales. At my workplace, success depends on effective teamwork, and attaining success is the meaning behind everything the team members do while working on a project. My understanding of the importance of success to my co-workers has always motivated me to contribute directly to the team’s success, and as a result, I know that my co-workers trust me, respect me and want to work with me. I contribute to the success of a team effort by working intelligently, meeting deadlines, being on time for meetings and conference calls, sharing meaningful ideas, quickly and properly responding to my co-workers’ expectations of me, and by always having my co-workers’ backs whenever they are sidetracked. They hold me in high regard because of these workplace behaviors.
- Socially competent people know how to use what Social Thinking calls the “social fake” strategy to behave in ways that are consistent with social norms and that maintain a state of tranquility. The social fake requires us to pretend that we are in a mood other than the mood we are actually in at the time. It is a routine strategy we all use on a daily basis and requires us to be less than honest with other people. Whenever you are asked “how are you?” and you respond by saying “I’m fine, thanks” even though you are feeling anything but fine, you are using the social fake strategy. Whenever you give a politically correct response to a question or comment that would offend others if responded to honestly, you again are using the social fake strategy. Note that the social fake is a tool, not a rule. In other words, use it only when the hidden rules of the situation warrant that it be used. For example, you are more likely to use it with a boss or an acquaintance than with a close friend.
- Socially competent people know how to make predictions about people and act accordingly. Back when I was a Music Education student in the middle of my student teaching semester, I was invited to a meeting that included some of the most respected and experienced high school music teachers in the region at the time. During the meeting, a question was brought up which I believed I could respond to in a meaningful fashion despite being the journeyman student teacher among the area’s finest in my field of study. And unfortunately, I took the bait! Instead of taking stock of who was with me at this meeting, predicting how they would probably respond to my remarks and refraining from saying anything as a result of such a prediction, I succumbed to a behavioral tendency associated with my Asperger’s profile which I call “being pulled toward the stimulus” and ended up speaking when I should not have. When I am “being pulled toward the stimulus”, I cannot resist the temptation to respond to something or somebody in the environment, and without any thought or awareness of the likely consequences. Looking back on the incident, I know that I should not have said a word and instead been a good, attentive listener, as would be fitting for a student in the midst of masters.
In closing, even though I didn’t know growing up what I know now with respect to social competence, I can at least look forward to what lies ahead by virtue of my increasing social and self-awareness and all of the benefits these bring to life. To Social Thinking, I say an impassioned “thank you!”