How to Ask Questions without Appearing Flippant or Confrontational

June 2014 Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter

“How can I ask ‘why’ without appearing flippant or confrontational?” Alex wants to know. “Because of the inherent bluntness of people with Asperger’s Syndrome, some of us may ask a supervisor directly, ‘Why are we doing this assignment?’ Our intention is to enhance understanding, due to our lack of central coherence. The supervisor may be taken aback by the apparent challenge or ‘flippant remark’ and miss the positive intent of the Asperger’s employee.”

Alex concludes that, “This is another example of where communication breakdown can easily occur.” He is right; and also makes a keen observation about central coherence.

Central coherence refers to an ability to see the “gist,” or main part of, a situation or dialogue. Autism researcher Uta Frith advanced the theory that individuals on the autism spectrum typically have a weak drive for central coherence. That is, they tend to focus on details instead of the big picture. This is in contrast to neurotypicals who generally consider the gist of a situation first.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of detail orientation (in fact, Frith refers to it as a cognitive style [1]). It becomes problematic when it prevents a person from recognizing the context of a situation. Context determines which details are relevant. Putting together relevant details reveals the meaning of what is happening.

In literal terms, asking, “Why are we doing this assignment?” makes perfect sense if the purpose of a task or request isn’t clear. However, when the purpose is considered to be obvious, asking why has negative implications, such as questioning a supervisor’s authority or trying to avoid a task.

Let’s suppose that an employee is told, “If you need to make a photocopy, use this machine.” He is presumed to understand that it is the designated copier for his department or work group. Asking, “Why can’t I use the machine just down the hall?” would be interpreted as challenging an instruction.

But what if it is your first day in a new job? Your supervisor is training you on the order entry procedure. You are confused when she asks you to type a piece of data into the computer. Asking, “Why is the code included in an order?” is perfectly acceptable. It is expected that a new employee will have questions when learning job tasks.

Here is an example of how asking why can be interpreted as questioning a supervisor’s reasoning. Jeff’s boss invited everyone in the department to a meeting to learn a new reporting procedure. He described how the process worked, and told everyone to begin using it the following Monday. Then he asked, “Are there any questions?”

Jeff asked, “Why do we have to use this system?”

His supervisor replied, angrily, “I just spent 45 minutes telling you why! Now, do it!”

This was confusing and upsetting to Jeff. As far as he was concerned, his boss had spent nearly an hour explaining how the procedure worked, not why it was necessary. Jeff had missed the big picture. The department members attended the meeting to learn the new system, not to debate its merits. This was considered to be obvious, because attendees were told what to do, and when to begin doing it. Jeff focused on the various steps, and whether they made sense. He was perceived as challenging his supervisor’s judgment by questioning something that had already been decided.

If you have Asperger’s Syndrome or Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) you probably have a hard time understanding the unspoken expectations that neurotypicals consider to be obvious. This greatly increases the chance of misunderstandings. Here are some suggestions for clarifying expectations in a non-challenging way:

  • Preface your inquiry with a statement such as “I’m confused,” or “Help me understand.” Saying, “I’m confused about how that improves the process,” or “Help me understand why that is a priority,” makes it clear that you have a question and are not challenging a task or directive.
  • Ask a co-worker for clarification. Often, who you ask changes the situational context and therefore how your question is interpreted. Asking a supervisor “why” can imply questioning their judgment or authority. Asking the same question of a peer implies confusion.
  • Ask once. Continuing to ask why, even in situations where it is an appropriate question, implies that you are resistant or a poor listener. If you have forgotten an instruction, say so (“I forgot why I need to enter the code”). If you do not understand or agree with a supervisor’s rational, accept that you will probably need to accept his or her directions.
  • Make a “soft disclosure.” It may be possible to describe a difficulty without disclosing that you have Asperger’s Syndrome or NLD. You might explain, for example, “I’m very literal, and have trouble seeing how tasks fit together. If I ask why, it is because I am confused.”
  • Disclose and request accommodations. Consider this option if you are frequently unsure of expectations or are often told “we covered that,” “you should know this,” or something similar. If you live in the United States, disclosing provides protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. These include reasonable workplace accommodations, which could include receiving explicit explanations and instructions.