How Much is Enough Communication?

January, 2014 Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter

“One of my challenges in the workplace is the ability to be concise in communications, both written and verbal,” writes John, a professional who has Asperger’s Syndrome. “I have been repeatedly criticized, even mocked, that I make things too wordy,” he continues. “I have a low tolerance for ambiguity so I feel the compulsion to write things out in more detail, which backfires. I’ve asked fellow Aspies if they also have trouble being succinct, and the answers were mixed. Some said they were too concise and frequently asked to elaborate. So is lack of succinctness a spectrum thing?”

Lack of succinctness is not a feature of Asperger’s Syndrome/autism spectrum per se. There are plenty of neurotypicals (NTs) who are verbose. Some just love to talk. An individual may try to impress others by sharing his extensive knowledge about a topic. He might try to prove a point by providing lots of evidence. NTs also tend to describe distressing events in great detail when the emotions are still strong. With each successive retelling, the emotional charge lessens, and the story becomes shorter.

In contrast, the verbosity of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) is a byproduct of the inherent difficulty with interpersonal communication and/or executive function.

Communication problems are typically the result of weak pragmatic and nonverbal skills. Pragmatics refers to the use of language within a social context. Neurotypicals are adept at adjusting their communication to match what is expected in various social situations.

Suppose the CEO of a company asks an employee, “How are things going?” If this question is asked during an informal tour of the office, an NT would realize that it is a friendly greeting. The CEO does not want to have a discussion about projects or problems. The expected response is pleasant and brief: “Very well, thank you.”

However, if that same question is asked during a formal meeting, the expectation is different. The purpose of a meeting is to exchange ideas and information. In this example, the agenda might be to discuss strategy, product sales or to address problems. Yet there are still unspoken expectations about how people in the meeting will communicate. Within the social context of a business meeting, people take turns speaking, listen to the ideas of others, and do not dominate the discussion. The content matches the needs of those present, and the agenda. Participants maintain a professional demeanor. One would not say, for example,”The company is too cheap to hire enough people.”

Nonverbal cues also guide communication. They provide clues to what others think and feel about what someone is saying. Yawns, and frequent glances at a wrist watch, indicate boredom and a desire to move on to a different topic, or end the discussion. Fidgeting in a chair could mean discomfort with what is being said, or boredom.

Executive function skills also contribute to good communication. Chief among these is the ability to see the big picture. What is the purpose of the communication? Why are others involved? What is important to them? Strong communication is not about sharing everything that you know about a topic. It is about sharing information that is relevant and important to listeners.

Loquacious communication can negatively impact job performance. People tune out long-winded speakers. Epic emails go unread. Too many details make it hard for listeners to understand the primary message.

Verbosity can also derail job seekers. Multi-page resumes that elaborate every task, performed on every job, obscure a candidate’s strengths. Rambling answers to interview questions are confusing, and make the job seeker appear disorganized and unprepared.

Here are some ideas about how to “right size” the level of detail and make your workplace communication more effective.

1. Plan Your Message.Whenever possible, plan specifically what you want to convey before you start writing or speaking. Think about the needs of the person(s) with whom you are conversing. What is the purpose of the discourse? What do others need to know … and what can you assume that they know already? How long do you have to convey your message? Who else will be communicating on the topic?

In most cases, it is not necessary to explain the entire background of a project, or elaborate minute points, to answer a question or clarify a situation. A customer complaining about a late shipment needs to know when to expect the order; not that the engineers couldn’t agree on product specs. The management team wants to know about strategy and results, not each step of the order entry process.

Clarify the main point, or points, that you want to make. Keep the number of points to five or fewer. Use details to support your main points. Before you decide to include a detail, complete this sentence: “This is important to others because…”

A good way to practice communicating the main point in a succinct way is to write it down using 25 words or fewer.

2. Don’t Over-Rely on Email. Some people tell me that they spend so much time crafting messages that their work doesn’t get done! Email has its benefits: no nonverbal signals to decode; no real-time processing; no pressure for an immediate response. However, some situations are best handled with a telephone call or face-to-face meeting. If your emails often exceed half of a printed page, or you are sending more than three about the same topic, consider a live conversation instead. Complex situations, big decisions, sensitive topics are not appropriate to address via email. (Email etiquette tip: Unless the matter is urgent, wait 48 hours before emailing to inquire whether a recipient has read your previous message.)

3. Avoid “$20 Words.” In his email to me, John also wrote that he had negative feedback about, “the quality of my words, not just quantity. I was told that I use ‘$20 words.'” This is an expression that refers to words that are unusual. Several years ago, I worked with a young man who wanted to improve his interviewing skills. “I don’t want to turn off the interviewer by bloviating,” he explained. Bloviate is a $20 word for talking too much.

Using words that to most people are obscure can make you seem pretentious or aloof. “Big words” may intimidate others who don’t have as large a vocabulary. Regardless of your intention, it can seem to others that you are talking down to them. Strive to make a point in one or two sentences, using language that a 10 year old can understand.

4. Edit. Before sending documents, edit your writing. Challenge yourself to eliminate at least one extra word from every sentence. Reading your words out loud can help you notice extra words, and run-on sentences.

If you have received feedback that you communicate too much, take it seriously. In addition to the techniques mentioned above, a supervisor or co-worker may be able to help. Explain your tendency to over-communicate, and ask whether your colleague will help you edit emails, or outline the main points for verbal communication. You should not expect someone else to do this for you all of the time. Consider it short-term “tutoring.” If this is not possible or effective, consider investing in a class, or private instruction.