Updated: December, 2023
© 2023 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
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 them? I think the majority of us have had these experiences. Once we realize what's happening, we try to shift and pull our attention away from the "me-focused" discussion to ask questions or try to include the other person. 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.
Or 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? I know I have and many of my adult clients report this being a problem for them in their personal relationships. The wife of one of my clients described her husband as getting stuck in an "information vortex."
In our work, we start by avoiding assumptions. 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. There is certainly truth in this statement but most of the clients who seek our help have a specific social goal they are striving towards and ask for help in figuring out the social world at work with the peers.
To this end, my clients have found some success with a simple 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.
We usually start with a set of tenants or assumptions that many people hold and discuss whether this is true to them. For example:
- None of us personally get to decide if we - ourselves- are using good social skills. Our social communication partners and people around us (even if we are not directly communicating with them) are the deciders. That is the case for all of us.
- When communicating with others, people and the situation implicitly assign a role to each of us. If our social goal is to connect with the other person, then it's our job to notice or figure out our assigned role and adapt or flex our communication skills to function within that specific social role. Here are some examples roles:
- When sitting in a meeting at work, our obvious (or assigned) role is to be a good listener. If/when we communicate within this situation, we are typically sharing information, ideas, reporting on experiences, the job, etc. This role is called information informer.
- When hanging out with friends or coworkers during lunchtime in the same room where the above-mentioned meeting was held, we are now all assigned the role of primarily being social relaters. At times, we assume the role of information informer if someone asks us -in the context of building the social relationship- to describe something we did or expand on something we know. In this situation, we would be aware of keeping our information sharing brief and to the point as we are soon expected to jump back into the role of social relater! Our roles can shift quickly and seamlessly.
- When teaching students, we 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 informer. In fact, in a classroom-based discussion, everyone in the class is expected to be an information informer during learning times. At the end of class, there might be a few spare minutes to just relate to one another before the bell rings, your role now shifts to being a social relater. If the teacher began teaching a new lesson during this time, they would likely be glared at and possibly ignored by students!
- When asking a partner/spouse to help solve a technology problem on a computer, we assign them the role of information informer. When sharing a personal problem with that same person another time, they are likely assigned the role of social relater. If they shift into telling you how you should feel or should have acted in that problem situation, then conflict might ensue. You can see how this can get tricky!
This last example summarizes a number of my clients' self-report of 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 possibly assigned by the communication partner or the situation.
While many of us may have accidentally assumed the role of the information informer when the situation or person needs a social relater, or vice-versa, we typically do this infrequently and may work to correct it right away. But if a person is unaware of this concept, then why wouldn’t they assume the role most comfortable to them. Many of my clients are most comfortable in the role of information informers, so we not only empower them with the understanding and strategies to flip between roles – if they choose – and also disclose and/or advocate for themselves and let others know this is their default role. Most of us don’t intentionally want to offend one another so have candid and open conversations about these roles can be helpful to both communication partners.
In working with adult clients who have specific work-related or personal goals, we delve into exploring the possible social expectations of each partner and have found that talking about the presumed versus assigned roles has been very helpful as they move towards their goals. So, give this discussion a try but, as we always say, if our work is not helpful or does not align with your teaching or therapy values, then please don’t use it or turn it into a punitive or behavior-changing focus. Let’s empower our clients and families with tools for them to use when/if they choose.