Mind Reading at Work

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, September, 2016

Michelle was focused on improving her communication skills. At my recommendation, she was reading Social Thinking at Work, Why Should I Care? by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. She was amazed to learn that it was expected that she would be aware of the emotional state of others with whom she was communicating.

“How come no one ever told me this?!” the 37 year old program manager exclaimed. “It’s like I need to be a mind reader.”

Interacting with others was confusing and anxiety-provoking for Michelle.  Previously she would try to guess at the meaning of comments and behaviors, and ignore situations that didn’t make sense. She was not aware that people provide clues as to what they are thinking and feeling, and that this information is frequently communicated nonverbally (such as through facial expression, tone or volume of voice, or gestures). She was intrigued to learn more about noticing and interpreting these clues.

Michelle began studying photographs of various facial expressions and noticing body language. However, she did not find these activities to be very useful.

“How to I know what to pay attention to?” she asked.

“It is not one thing, such as a raised eyebrow,” I explained. “This is why interpersonal communication is so complex. The key is to put multiple pieces of information within a situational context.”

To illustrate how this works, we dissected a meeting between Michelle and two colleagues. Jill was the recently hired event manager and Max was the marketing director. Jill was hired so that Michelle could focus on other projects. Michelle had been training Jill for the previous three weeks.

Jill was in charge of the meeting so Michelle let her introduce topics and ask questions. Soon, however, Max began directing questions at Michelle, which she answered. When the meeting ended Jill said to Michelle, “I think that maybe you should have my job.”

Michelle was shocked. Was Jill angry that Michelle answered Max’s questions? Did she want Michelle to continue being in charge of events? Or, as a colleague suggested, was she making a joke?

Later that day Michelle went into the break room and saw Jill. “I am so swamped,” Jill said, with a smile, “this is going to be a long afternoon.”

To discern the meaning of Jill’s remark, we discussed the overall quality of their relationship. Michelle said they got along well, and that Jill often expressed gratitude for Michelle’s advice. Then I asked about Jill’s behavior when Max began asking the questions. Michelle recalled that Jill took many notes, and periodically nodded her head “yes” in response to Michelle’s suggestions. Jill also made comments such as, “I agree,” and “That’s a great idea.”

“What was Jill’s demeanor when she made the remark about you having her job?” I asked. “Was she smiling or did she look serious? What was her tone of voice?”

Michelle said that Jill did not look or sound angry, and had giggled after making the remark. On the way back to their desks, they discussed a different project in their usual cordial manner.

We concluded that Jill was not upset about the meeting. She did not attempt to stop Max’s questions. Her comments and affirmative head nodding were signs that she approved of what was happening. And there was no change in the way Jill interacted with Michelle afterward.

Michelle realized the Jill’s comment was an indirect way of expressing her insecurity about mastering the job of event management. It was likely that Jill was feeling overwhelmed by the task, and also grateful that Michelle was there to provide information. It is not unusual for people to use humor or irony to communicate anxiety or overwhelm.

Over the next few months we continued to review workplace interactions. Michelle became more skilled at noticing nonverbal cues and using situational context to interpret their meaning. She became less anxious when interacting with her colleagues.

Copyright 2016, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching