Perilous meetings, part 2: to go or not to go?

In my last post I talked about how meetings can be very uncomfortable, ineffective, and even dangerous for people on the spectrum. But in a culture where a lot of useful information is spread through meetings and discussions, there are obvious downsides to systematic avoidance. So what to do?

For me, the question of whether or not to attend a meeting requires clear assessment of risk. I weigh up the costs and benefits on a case-by-case basis to make my decision. I might also consider potential workarounds. I suspect this sort of systematic process is quite common in the higher levels of management and leadership, where individuals have learned through experience that time is the most precious of resources. What’s interesting my analysis is, ironically, the abstract and subjective nature of the costs involved.

The first question I ask myself on receiving a meeting invite – and one I’m proud to share with the most successful leaders and managers – is “why”? What is this meeting trying to achieve; and can I contribute to that aim? Is there any other reason for me to be there? If not, I – we – politely decline.

After the initial “why” filter, the second stage is where our methods diverge. Where leaders base this part of the decision on the value of their time – a concrete, measurable cost – my analysis must, by necessity, be more subjective. Of course, I do try my absolute best to make it as quantitative as possible!

The “workplace meetings risk matrix” works for me like any other. The likelihood of something going wrong (usually around someone else being affronted) depends on a few things: how important the meeting is to me, how complex the information I’d like to obtain or contribute, and my background anxiety level. It’s also related to who will be at the meeting. While most of my colleagues are constructive, there are a couple who raise red flags for me. The overall number of people can also be important: up to a point (where the “meeting” becomes a “briefing”), more people means more complexity, with a higher risk of losing track.

The impact of any problem that occurs relates primarily to who will be at the meeting: whether they’ve had any autism-related training, and their likely reaction to a perceived affront. In some cases, there can be also be much more serious risks to business reputation – although this is very rarely a part of my role. But if I don’t know any person attending, I have to assume the worst. So if I’m struggling to mask that day and the meeting involves an external visitor, I have to say “no”.

The third stage, maybe slightly less intuitively, is to assess the risk of not going. It’s easy when anxiety is running high to avoid every interaction that isn’t strictly essential. But there’s a risk in doing that too often: it damages my reputation, and can isolate me from my team and from the information I need to work effectively. So I look at the benefits again, and weigh up the costs of not realising those benefits. I also think at this point about whether there’s any other way of achieving some or all of those benefits – which is a topic for another post.

I won’t pretend this method is fool-proof. Sometimes I’ve judged a situation wrongly, or discounted an individual effect. And sometimes there just isn’t a right answer. But if I follow the process, overall, I can get a pretty effective balance.

Having run through the “meetings risk matrix”, there are two more areas I want to explore around dealing positively with workplace interactions. In my next post I’ll consider the multiple benefits that meetings achieve for non-autistic people, and suggest some alternative methods I’ve used to pursue those goals.

But it’s also important not to neglect the emotional impact of this type of thinking, which can easily descend into self-flagellation, depression and despair. So I want to take a moment to be clear that it is not us as autistic people who are inherently risks or liabilities. We can be aware, but we cannot take responsibility for the irrational judgements of others; and we should not try. It takes courage to accept that others’ thinking, however wrong, cannot easily be changed, and strength to work within the narrow boundaries of those misconceptions. I’ll tackle this in more detail in a later post. But I want to finish by saying that despite our difficulties, I don’t believe for one second that my autism, or yours, is a weakness. We are strong. We work hard. And we can succeed.

The perils of workplace meetings

The statistics for autistic adults in employment in the UK are bleak. Despite the similarity in distribution of intelligences on and off the spectrum, a mere 16% of adults with autism are in full time paid employment, compared to around a 75% employment rate for the total population of the UK. This factor of five difference in employability is widely attributed to the difficulties autistic people have, not with work itself, but with the social and political expectations of the workplace. I suspect that executive function and time management / perception issues may also play a role here. But in the socio-political arena, not least of the pitfalls awaiting us is the workplace meeting.

The issue of workplace meetings is huge for me, and much too large to deal with in one post! I’ll make a start here by sketching out the intricate, inconvenient little details that add up to explain why meetings can be such a tricky environment for autistic people – and the equally intricate little workarounds I use to chip away at the problem.

Meetings can be difficult for a variety of reasons. First, verbal dialogue. Some autistics (including me) have difficulty with short term memory, and struggle to hold verbal information in mind. This is a characteristic we share with others in the neurodiverse community, notably dyslexics. In offices with a culture of unstructured meetings, often lacking an agenda or minuted actions, it is easy for us to miss or misunderstand what is going on and what we are required to do.

Secondly, processing speed. The nature of conversation is to flow, sometimes rapidly, from one person and one topic to the next. Many of us on the spectrum need time to assimilate and consider the facts as they come in. Again, particularly in unstructured meetings, I often find my responses or questions arise too late, when the group has moved on to another thing. If I interrupt then, I disrupt the conversation; but if I don’t, I cannot contribute, and decisions are made without me.

Thirdly, when and how to speak. This is an area of immediate risk – for me, at least. It’s well recognised that the natural language of autistics is literal and direct, and that many of us don’t automatically modulate our vocal tone. To speak up quickly and avoid missing what is often the only opportunity – after insufficient processing time and with the anxiety of not completely assimilating the verbal dialogue – is to risk accusations of rudeness, insensitivity or disrespect. But not speaking carries the more insidious risk: of not understanding, not executing the correct actions, and ultimately of losing trust and underperforming professionally. Not forgetting that remaining silent prevents us from making our own, valuable contributions to these conversations.

I decided some time ago to choose the immediate risk of speaking in meetings. Accumulating experience, I began to recognise that my insights and experience could be important, even crucial to success. I’ve come to understand and believe very strongly that everyone on the team has something to contribute toward improving our products and processes; and that by not contributing myself, I would not be fulfilling one of the key responsibilities of my role.

Having said that: on a daily basis, maintaining confidence in meetings is one of the most difficult things I ever have to do. My style of communication is quite direct, honest and upfront, and I don’t hesitate to ask questions if unclear. The combination of being young and relatively intelligent, and of outwardly taking people at face value rather than on reputation, leads certain individuals to interpret this as a personal affront. (I suspect the fact that I am also female only compounds this issue, given the jarring disconnect between the stereotypical submissive young woman and the competent, questioning scientist that I like to project.) There is always the risk, therefore, especially in meetings with particularly well-established or tender egos, that I will be judged on the lack of soft edges in these interactions rather than the content of my message. Having confidence misinterpreted as arrogance and straightforwardness as lack of respect causes the sort of unquantifiable damage that can lead to the end of a career. So there is always pressure, and there is always fear.

There are a few tricks I can use to reduce the risk of workplace meetings. I have an agreement with my manager to get an agenda or “goal statement” in advance of each meeting, to help me follow the changes in topic. If I need to, I can ask for actions to be summarised in writing, at the end of or after the meeting. But it’s rarely enough to deal with the issues of tone and “word choice” – using the straightforward language that comes naturally to me.

I’ve had to accept, reluctantly, that the likely prognosis for any given meeting I’m invited to will be negative. But there are methods I can use to swing those odds back in my favour. In later posts I’ll describe parts of the wider, strategic approach I’m using to navigate the meeting culture in my organisation, and the benefits I’m starting to see in my performance and wellbeing over the longer term.

Nice people

I’m struck sometimes by the cognitive dissonance there seems to be in the heads of a very specific breed of “nice people”. Nice people know how you feel. Nice people sympathise with you. Nice people make soothing noises when you break down and cry, and tell you that everything is going to be OK. But tomorrow those nice people will do sweet F.A. to make it so.

Nice people, you see, don’t need to change. Their sympathy is enough. They know how good they are with people – they’ve been told so all their lives. They couldn’t possibly be part of the problem.

The problem with these “nice people” is their pride. Whether or not unconsciously, they are proud of being nice. Their natural way of being makes others feel comfortable. It’s a role they know from heroes in stories and leaders in films, the aspiration of many. They share others’ pleasure and soothe their pain; and they draw what is a perfectly innocent satisfaction from their social value.

Honestly, I do understand. It’s rewarding beyond measure to know that you can help or inspire another person. There is a deep, quiet joy in being able to support a friend or loved one, in the everyday things of life as well as the crises. I can imagine how that situation being normal, and not the beautiful exception, might shape a person’s self image; and might shape what they come to expect from the world.

Nice people know, with quiet certainty, that their value is intrinsic. This is their gift. They always know what to do and what to say. They’ve never had to think about the impact of their actions. That impact has never – to their knowledge – been anything other than good.

And then they meet me.

Actually, it’s not only me. It’s anyone they meet from the Other Side: poor, frail, depressed, sick, disabled. Anyone whom the system does not support. Anyone from whom, in fear or in pain or through simple lack of ability, the social niceties in just one of many crises might slip away.

Nice people are hurt when you snap at them to STOP causing you pain. Nice people feel pressured when you beg for their help. Nice people know the best way do things is gently, with trust and with patience. They’ve never had to step out of their own heads to feel what you feel. And that’s the danger, right there: that they’ll treat their own passing sadness with more urgency than your desperate, existential need.

Nice people are used to feeling respected. They’re not used to holding back their feelings when someone is rude to them. They’re not used to thinking about the “why” before they complain. They don’t know your pain. They don’t mean to hurt you. But they do.

Nice people are wonderful when things are going well. When you’re passing and functioning and ready to have fun. And nice people can be great at propping you up for a while, just until you get back on your feet. They can be there for you. They know all the sorts of crises that normal people go through – losing friends, breaking up, divorce, bereavement – and they really do mean well. They want to be able to use their skills to help you. But they are so sad, so disappointed, when you can’t be fixed.

What those nice people don’t realise is that we can’t all be like that. Some of us have lives where being on your feet and fully alive is the transitory thing. Some of us can’t rely on being there for others, not at just any time. Some of us save ourselves in anticipation of those glorious days when we’re not sad, frightened, confused or in pain. Some of us mourn those selves that barely see the light of day.

Some of us need “nice people” to be different. Some of us need them to realise that speaking up, again and again, when your basic needs aren’t being met isn’t selfishness: it’s survival. That being in constant exhaustion or confusion can preclude giving away parts of ourselves to support others. That making one choice between being realistic about our capabilities or chronically unreliable doesn’t make us bad people. It’s just that we didn’t have the choice you had. To be nice.

Dipping my toes in the water…

Too much has been going on so I’ve been hiding away from the world for a while. It’s been difficult to keep up with reading blogs and news stories, let alone writing. I suspect many people find this, but when I’m struggling I need to save my emotional energy for my own problems. Reading about other people’s pain and how many things are wrong in this world, which I am helpless to resolve, just makes me want to cry.

I think I’m back now 🙂

I thought about putting together a post for this week, but then I looked through my reader pane and realised I really don’t need to! It’s incredible to see such a lot of amazing stuff all out at once. So it might seem like a cop-out, but today I’d really like just to share a few links to pieces that made me feel hopeful.

Firstly there’s Progress Not Perfection. Taking a refreshingly impatient view of the “grumbles” on social media, she’s running a series of posts on things that go well in mental health services. While there’s definitely a place for grumbles – it helps us all to be able to vent or just share our experiences with people who understand – these stories definitely perked me up. You can find the first post in the series here.

Then I read this post from AutiWomanDifferentBox. It’s a big commitment to seek out an adult diagnosis, and as far as I can tell everyone has a pretty unique experience of the whole process. Adult autism services are improving in the UK, but there are still huge gaps by region, and GPs seem to know very little about diagnosis and support. The National Autistic Society has lots of information. This was also a good post to remind me I should write about my experiences so far of seeking an NHS diagnosis…

Finally there are a couple of good posts at Michelle Sutton Writes about dealing with “challenging” behaviours in neurodiverse children. I’ve learned a lot from this blog, largely about self-acceptance. It’s not cushy or sentimental, but offers practical strategies about how to just get on with life when your needs, and those of your children, aren’t automatically met. Her piece here is a reminder that making “difficult” children feel safe is an absolute prerequisite to teaching “acceptable” behaviours in a safe and meaningful way. I love to read this because it reminds me that even when things are difficult I am not just a naughty child (yes, I know I’m in my late twenties…), and that as a first step, just focusing on meeting my own basic needs will make everything else start to flow more easily. (And also, if I were ever a parent, I would want to do it like this.)

And then there’s this. Which needs nothing more!

That’s all for tonight folks. Happy reading 🙂