Are Misunderstandings Causing Conflicts at Work?

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, October 2018

Maura sought coaching to figure out why she had so much trouble staying employed. “After a few weeks or months, things just fall apart,” she explained, “and suddenly everyone is mad at me. I either get fired or quit.”

After discussing her work history in detail, patterns emerged. Maura had a tendency to misinterpret the actions of her supervisors and co-workers, finding herself angry or hurt by colleagues who seemed to “turn” on her. Simple misunderstandings were perceived as personal attacks.

For example, Maura’s supervisor asked her to help a co-worker in a different department. When Maura reached the man’s office, he asked, “Why are you here?” Maura thought the co-worker was suggesting that she did not belong at the company. After reviewing the situation, Maura realized that the man wasn’t expecting her to assist with his projects.

Maura took things personally by assuming that the words and actions of others were directed at her specifically. Once, she accused a boss of “hating” her because she was denied a certain day off. In reality, the decision had nothing to do with the boss’ personal feelings toward her. There was a department-wide training scheduled for that date.

Sometimes, low self-esteem causes a person to perceive innocent behavior as a put down or attack. Another client, Peter, became very angry when his supervisor corrected errors. “He thinks that I’m stupid,” Peter fumed. After working with a therapist, he realized that he was taking the corrections personally, due to his negative beliefs about himself.

One way to judge whether there is a simple misunderstanding or serious conflict is to think about the context of the situation. Who is involved and what is the purpose of the interaction? How likely is it that another person was joking, teasing, or responding factually to a question or request?

If you are not sure about a person’s intentions, say, “I’m not sure what you mean;” or ask, “was that a joke?” If a person seems annoyed, you could say, “I’m confused; are you upset about something?”

It is important to place an event or interaction into perspective. Think about your prior history with an individual. Has he always been friendly? Did she patiently answer your questions? Would it make sense that a previously friendly co-worker would suddenly insult you without provocation?

Consider the severity of the event. Is it an inconsequential difference of opinion, a serious dispute … or something in between? Is it a minor incident that you need to handle yourself, or a major transgression that requires intervention from management?

A turning point for Maura was the realization that the workplace was not a “battle field” as she had once thought. She noticed that other people got along well the majority of the time. She began to ignore the impulse to immediately react to perceived slights. Instead she gave herself time to think a situation through, using many of the questions above. Although she still had a lot to learn about context, and how to read  nonverbal communication, changing her thinking about workplace interactions lowered her stress level significantly.

Copyright 2018, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching