Perilous meetings, part 3: is there another way?

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while. As in, months. Maybe more. I don’t like to write about things until my understanding is complete. Perfectionism is a problem for me.

Sometimes in life, you can know you don’t have all the information, but you have to act on it anyway. Time doesn’t stop for me to make sense of what I’m doing. I am acting on this understanding now, incomplete or immature as it may be. So I will try not to be ashamed of sharing it with you.

The last two posts I’ve written were about the dangers of workplace meetings, and the methods I use to determine whether it’s worth the risk. Today’s post takes a more positive stance, asking: what’s good about meetings, and can I reap any of those benefits elsewhere?

And that quickly, I am out of my depth!

From my analytical standpoint I think there are two main reasons why meetings are, in principle, a good thing. Firstly, and quite simply, information exchange. A lot of things can be discussed in emails or reported in briefings, but neither of these quite matches the immediate efficiency of reciprocal conversation. My difficulties with speech are quite subtle – enough that I will be blamed for my “inappropriate word choice” as harshly as if the intention were to offend – and although I’ve thought about script cards I can’t quite bring myself to use them, for fear of being told I’m over-dramatising. So verbal, in person conversation does fill a unique niche for me – as for many people – that is very difficult to replace.

The other reason is really a variety of reasons, clustered weakly under a heading I could perhaps designate as “connection”. The very act of being visibly present and participating in discussions creates ripples: subtle effects on the interpersonal relationships of those involved. The nebulous concepts of approachability and trust seem to hinge on the contents of these reciprocal interactions. It’s about “staying in touch”, “maintaining an open dialogue”. If I were feeling cynical and utterly unsympathetic to human foibles, I might say it’s about reminding people you exist. But it’s an unfortunate reality that if you, like me, avoid group coffee breaks and water cooler small talk, you may find the only remaining option for connection hinges on an effective presence in team meetings.

Intellectually, I can see how it might be possible to achieve things in unstructured meetings. From what I’ve observed of social interactions, neurotypical people can and do select the focus, progress discussions and make firm decisions in conversation that they then act upon. But my experience as an autistic person is that I can’t do that. Not in social settings, and not in work meetings. I just can’t keep track. So I need to find another way.

There are a number of things I do at work to try to fill the gaps that “risk management” can create. Some of these are relatively easy. I keep on top of my emails and the news on our Intranet. If there’s something I’m aware of that I can’t find information on, I’ll email someone to find out more. Wherever possible I stay ahead of changes in policy or procedures by looking up the written documentation. I also have regular chats with my line manager, where I ask explicitly for updates on anything that might affect my work or job role. Such a proactive approach may seem like overkill, but it helps me to see straight away where I might need more information, and to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

But for reciprocal interactions, one-on-one meetings have been a complete revelation. I wrote about when I first discovered this, and have done my best since then to build on that insight. Now I keep up with some colleagues and contacts through coffee breaks, where I can practise handling the flow of conversation between work projects and outside interests. And while I can’t be completely confident in the attribution, I am starting to see a difference in how often those colleagues approach me, and the level of trust they show in my technical judgement. We’re working better together since I started experimenting with this form of connection.

Of course, one-on-one meetings can’t cover everything, and there are times when it really is essential to have everyone in the same room. I’ve noticed that people – including myself, when sufficiently relaxed – sometimes need the context of a wider conversation to bring the right thought to mind. And it’s not uncommon that, while one person might have most of the pieces to one particular puzzle, the different pieces others bring mean that sometimes you don’t quite know how the picture will look until everyone has had their say. Most of my team work quite independently on our projects, so it’s usually possible to slot extra pieces one by one into an already clear picture, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

These meetings are as risky and difficult to deal with as any other. But I find that by pacing myself, being aware of meeting goals and avoiding less constructive group settings, I can save myself to contribute more effectively to these essential interactions.

I’d like to say I’ve got the balance right, and it’s certainly true that I’m seeing improvements; but this is very much a work in progress. Recently workplace meetings have got harder and harder for me. Although there are many good reasons for this, it’s tricky to break out of the spiral of low confidence repeated “failures” can bring. The final piece of the puzzle, ironically, may be to ask for help from other members of my team. I’m not quite there yet, but I think I’m moving in the right direction! Until then I’ll keep pacing myself: building trust through one-to-ones, avoiding risky situations, and saving myself for those larger workshops where there really is no other way.

Baby steps 🙂

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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.

Negotiating power

Very soon I will have to have a difficult conversation. I have to negotiate with someone whose current position is so diametrically opposed to mine that the two of us seem to be overreaching ourselves just trying to meet in the middle. I need that person on my side.

In the past, I’ve rarely bothered to negotiate for my needs. In my experience, just battling through a difficult problem or situation is usually easier than trying to get help from someone else. In terms of emotional input, it’s certainly less costly, although it can have unfortunate consequences for my wellbeing in the short term.

There are a few reasons I tend to deal with my problems independently. The main issue is the difficulty I have in approaching people and starting conversations. Often a problem seems self-contained – perhaps time-limited to just a week or two. I might feel that, within those constraints, I have a good chance of keeping things under control. Then especially if the best person to speak to is someone I’ve never met, or someone I know I find difficult to connect with, just the stress of approaching them is a huge investment that might not be worth the benefits. Perverse as it sounds, there’s also the added uncertainty. Sometimes it’s easier to commit upfront to a bad situation than it is to hope for better, and risk being crushed.

There are other, rarer occasions, when I do look for allies. When my time-limited problem has unexpectedly extended itself, or the immediate effects are just too dire. At that point, the problem is translation. Sometimes the person understands what I’m trying to tell them; and honestly, when everything suddenly and magically gets better (and it’s amazing how often that is the case), I wonder why I don’t do this more often. But if they’re not immediately supportive, I’m still more likely to back away into my shell than to try to bring them around to my point of view.

Over the past year I’ve been building a clearer, more strategic picture of my personal needs and vulnerabilities, so that I can anticipate where and how certain things are likely to go wrong. The idea was that if I knew when a situation was heading south, I could talk to the people involved, try to manage expectations, and maybe even get some help. It only half worked. I’ve learned a lot about situations that might go wrong for me, and am developing increasingly effective tools and workarounds to maintain my own personal wellbeing. But I can’t manage expectations, and I don’t have available in conversation the flexible emotional vocabulary required to persuade others to help me. So despite my efforts, and to my increasing frustration, those little everyday disasters that could so easily have been avoided just keep on happening.

Enter “difficult conversation”, looming ominously on the approaching horizon.

I’m very aware of the skills I lack which are crucial in real time negotiation. I struggle with self-confidence and assertiveness in articulating my needs. I don’t have the ability to think quickly and flexibly in real time. Under pressure, losing verbal fluency and desperate not to antagonise others, I will agree to almost anything rather than incurring judgement on my increasingly autistic communication style. Only later will I realise I can’t deliver on what I’ve promised.

The main things I’m thinking about to prepare myself for this conversation are as follows:

  1. Preparation. Preparation is key. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the parameters of this conversation and what I’ll need in order to communicate effectively. That’s before even thinking about the position I’m trying to negotiate for the longer term.
  2. Time. I almost certainly won’t be able to process all the necessary information in real time, in a way that allows us to move constructively towards a compromise. The fear of not getting what I need, reinforced by repeated experience of signing up to things I can’t achieve, will make me dig in my heels – and that kind of stubbornness could go badly for me. I’ve already requested to have more than one meeting, to follow up the issues and give me time to absorb the information before we commit to any kind of agreement.
  3. Expressing my needs. Communication is hard; emotional communication is harder. I’m thinking about how to use scripts or alternative forms of communication to indicate when I need a break or processing time. A friend suggested I could write some scripts on little coloured cards, like the ones you can get for exam revision or as presentation prompts. I’ll need to make sure the messages are agreed and understood in advance, as I won’t have words to explain them at the time.
  4. Self care. This meeting is utterly, unavoidably essential, but it’s going to exhaust me. I’ve arranged to take some leave and work flexibly around the negotiations themselves, so that I can focus all of my attention where it’s needed without worrying about working productively, operating sustainably or avoiding overload. There’s easy food for if (ok: “when”) I get home struggling to untie my own shoelaces. I’ll try not to get run over on the way!

Negotiation is complex; but as a helpful professional reminded me recently, I won’t get anywhere if I don’t ask. I don’t know whether any of this is going to work. I’ll let you know.

Communication: taking the risk

Autism is a wonderfully complex thing. The word incorporates a spectrum of differences, abilities and disabilities so broad that if asked “what is autism”, I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s a difference in perspective so vast that you have to break down the whole other reality to build a new picture, right from the bottom up.

In amongst the stinking miasma of misinformation, oversimplification and stereotype surrounding autism, non-autistic experts have grasped a few grains of truth. One is that many autistics genuinely struggle with verbal (spoken and written) communication. In my opinion the experts understate this problem, particularly with Asperger syndrome. Despite being articulate on a number of unusual topics, words in general do not come easily to me.

Coupled with an inability to multi-task, struggling to put concepts into words presents some very real and complex problems. When dealing with human interactions, realistically, I have three options available to me. I can communicate a message using clear and direct words. I can speak in indirect words, engaging in small talk and surface emotional processing. Or I can mirror the body language that is expected of me in a social situation, and which also does not come naturally.

In practise, I never mirror body language. This is because I will always need to use words at some point to interact, and so am never in the situation where neither communication nor indirect words need to take place. I know some of the theory around body language, but it was never really worth learning as when it comes down to it, I cannot apply that knowledge in real time.

I do speak in indirect words. This is because I recognise the importance of others’ feelings. In its most mercenary form, putting effort into making people feel comfortable makes them more likely to approach me for help, with offers of inclusion or of information – all of which are things I like and want to encourage. But further than that, I don’t want people to be uncomfortable around me. I genuinely care about fulfilling others’ emotional needs.

Speaking indirectly comes at a cost. Think of it in terms of learning a language. Normally when you learn a foreign language, the first stage is passive: the listening. That doesn’t mean you can’t say words. When babies learn to talk, they start by echoing a few words. But everybody understands that the actual words used are meaningless. (In autism this manifests in a behaviour called echolalia. This can be extremely subtle and difficult to detect, and I use it probably more than I realise. But that’s a whole other post!)

Learning to say words – starting with those that are easiest to articulate – comes before the stage where those words are used for communication. To communicate, you have to know the meaning. You learn the meaning much more gradually, by hearing how others use words, and in what contexts. You have to understand how that language is used before you can start to use it.

Autistics like me notoriously have problems understanding normal language. The problem manifests around things like implication and context, and is often described in terms of the autistic person taking things too literally. Sometimes this is characterised as a “delay” in “language skills”. I don’t know whether this is true – I probably won’t know until I am old enough to have waited out the delay – but what I do know is that to us, language comes differently. We use the same words, but in a very different way. And when you don’t phrase things clearly and unambiguously, we don’t always understand what you are saying.

When you consider this fact, it makes a lot of sense that autistic people actually cannot use words in an indirect way reliably to communicate a message. If we can’t interpret indirect language reliably as it was meant (although many of us do get better at this over our lifetimes), then how could we possibly use it?

Think about it another way: as a code. Non-autistic people don’t use words according to their literal meaning. Instead, they communicate in code. First, they translate their literal meaning into some different words. It looks like evasion to me, because I don’t understand it, but it has a clear meaning to them. When another non-autistic person hears the code, they have the right key to translate it back into meaning. I don’t have the key – so I have to ask for clarification. Then when I make my own indirect messages, with words that I hope will help others feel comfortable, I don’t do the translation right, and the recipient might not get the message. It can take several trial-and-error attempts for the message to get through.

A lot of the time, this is OK. With technical communications, for example, I’ve learned it’s worth following up conversations in writing anyway. In that format people seem a lot more comfortable being direct, so we can make sure the information has been correctly exchanged. At other times, delay can be a frustrating but necessary price to pay for maintaining good working relationships. But there are also times, when the personal or professional cost of miscommunication is high, when my scattergun approach of using random indirect words is incapable of meeting the immediate need.

And therein lies the rub. Because if I communicate efficiently, using the only reliable tools I have available to me, this is not socially acceptable.

It would be easy for me at this point to rant and rave about the social expectations of a majority non-autistic society and how they must be deliberately marginalising me for my differences. But it’s more complicated than that. I know that in tricky situations, where the concepts are nuanced and hard to articulate, I will appear at best blunt, and at worse outright offensive. The effort it takes me to put those concepts into words – any words – is phenomenal. So when the words come out of me there is no flexibility to soften the message. It would be a lie to say I have no control over my vocal tone, but it’s certainly not automatic – I have to concentrate on phrasing a line. When the message is that complex, my tone is all over the place. It’s rude; it’s arrogant; it’s aggressive; it’s any random word that triggers some past contextual experience in the mind of my conversation partner. No matter that in terms of intention, it means less than nothing. That tone is literally whatever default my vocal cords settle on when my whole attention is focused on the words. But what it says to my companion makes the conversation, for them, a genuinely unpleasant experience.

Reconciling my care for others’ feelings with the occasional genuine need for urgent communication is something I struggle with. Until very recently, I have always erred on the side of caution. Better to delay, and make sure the recipient is happy, than to force the message through and risk alienation. But sometimes the risk has to be taken. When the need is pressing; when, for whatever reason, my increasingly elaborate and creative attempts to use indirect methods are not getting through. When the message can’t be crafted fully in an email, but requires reciprocal interaction; discussion; negotiation. When lack of understanding on the part of that other person could have real, long term effects on my future and wellbeing.

I am learning to take the risk. It has been a painful start. I hope very much that things will get better from here.

Working with anxiety

On the whole, understanding that I am autistic has been a very positive change. A diagnosis has helped me to understand my profile of strengths and weaknesses, take better care of myself, and start to improve in skills relevant to my job. But the one huge negative aspect has been the fear.

Anxiety for autistic people is real. The book “Anxiety and Autism” by Nick Dubin goes into a great deal of detail about this issue. Tony Attwood also puts it well in his “Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome”. This fear of real outcomes is not the same as an anxiety disorder, and in my experience responded badly to CBT techniques. The central premise, that facing an anxious situation provides positive reinforcement each time the “worst case scenario” is not realised, is somewhat counterproductive when that feared scenario is perhaps the most probable outcome!

Most of the unavoidable anxiety in my life at the moment is associated with the workplace. Not my job – I am confident in my ability to perform in that – but the workplace environment. After my diagnosis of Asperger syndrome it dawned on me gradually that the social issues I struggle with form a huge part of working within a large organisation. The ability to do my job, in itself, is not enough. Problems that are largely avoidable in my personal life rear their ugly heads over and over again at meetings, workshops, coffees and conferences. There is a fundamental disconnect between who I am – my intentions, motivation and abilities – and how I am perceived. The potential impacts, and my lack of influence over those outcomes, can be terrifying.

Given my experiences over the past year, I realise now that this fear will probably never go away. There is nothing I can do to escape it, and perhaps I should not try. What I can do is try to reduce the probability of the outcomes I most fear, and look to mitigate the impact anxiety has on my working life. Whilst medication, for me, is an important part of this process, managing expectations and modifying my work environment are equally crucial.

The single most important thing that brings me in to work on those terrible mornings where I am so afraid I can barely speak is the relationship I have with my line manager. Having disclosed my diagnosis early on, I was offered nothing but support, and an open door to discuss any issues as and when they arose. Being able to discuss and agree different coping mechanisms reduced the pressure on me to hide my fear. Once the diagnosis was official we arranged some training for close colleagues, which helped reduce the prevalence of terror at being constantly mis-perceived.

From an autistic perspective, I realise that highlighting a relationship as the most important factor may not be excessively helpful! The line manager relationship can be difficult to build, as it is so dependent on the individual. I was very lucky that my own manager was proactive early on in forming that relationship, so that by the time I realised the depth of my problems, the support was already available. If you can’t develop that sort of trust with your manager, it might be worth looking to build a relationship with another authority figure close to you in the organisation. If your organisation has a mentoring scheme, this can also be helpful as an additional line of support.

Alongside that relationship, taking control of the “little things” is something I’ve found can make a big difference (clichĂ©d but true). Some things to think about might include:

  • Have an “escape plan” for any specific situations that make you anxious. This can be as simple as a script to get out of a meeting if you start to feel panicked. If it’s agreed in advance, you don’t need to worry about whether it’s appropriate to leave or what the consequences will be if you use it.
  • If there’s a possibility you might lose words or be unable to explain your needs when anxious, it’s worth having a plan to communicate this. This could be a simple card or flag to warn colleagues you’re struggling, or you could prepare more elaborate scripts / indicators in advance.
  • Scripted email templates can help if you have trouble asking for support. Talk to trusted colleagues in advance about what you might need in a certain situation and what they can do, so that they know how to react to your email script. Remember to thank them for being there, and again when you are feeling better after any incident where they’ve helped according to the script or plan.
  • Let your manager know as soon as possible if anxiety becomes overwhelming or starts having wider impacts. Managing expectations is important, and it reduces the pressure you feel to hide what’s going on. And who knows, they may even be able to help!

I’d be intrigued to hear from anxious autistics doing paid or voluntary work in other organisations. How do you manage your anxiety when working with other people? Is there anything else you’ve found that can help?