Repairing Relationships at Work

April/May 2013 Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter

It is my experience that interpersonal communication is the source of most problems that people with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) have on the job. Most neurotypicals (NTs) prefer to work in groups, and place a high value on the relationships they have with their colleagues. Aspergians and NLDers may not be aware that their actions have upset others, or know how to resolve a conflict at work.

Generally, NTs will forgive the occasional brusque remark or odd behavior. It is when behaviors are repeated that people lose patience. Any action that others consider threatening (even if it happens once) can lead to a disciplinary action or termination.

In many cases, it is possible to repair relationships and change people’s perceptions, but it requires consistent effort over a substantial period of time.

The first step is to accept that there is a problem, and be willing to change your behavior. Sometimes, I coach clients who want to focus on why the perceptions of their co-workers are wrong. This does not solve the problem. A co-worker’s perception is true for him or her. Ryan was indignant that colleagues complained to his supervisor about his abrasive manner. He insisted that the content of his message was correct. He didn’t see that his judgmental language (“If you had listened carefully…”) and stern tone of voice were perceived by his co-workers as condescending and dismissive. They reacted to the way he made them feel.

Todd tried to justify asking his supervisor the same questions, again and again. “I need her reassurance that I am doing my assignments correctly,” he said. What Todd really needed was to learn how to manage his anxiety. His supervisor became more and more frustrated as Todd continued to ask basic questions. Finally, she gave Todd an ultimatum: work more independently or be fired.

If a problematic behavior is called to your attention, take it seriously. Apologize if your actions have angered, offended, or otherwise emotionally impacted others. Plan what you will say in advance. Acknowledge your error, validate the other person’s feelings, and express remorse: “I was wrong to call your idea ‘dumb,’ and am sorry that I hurt your feelings.” It is imperative that your words sound genuine. Practice with someone you trust if you are unsure about how you sound to others.

Next, figure out what action you need to take to correct the problem. Apologies do not carry much weight if your behavior doesn’t change. It may be necessary to work with a professional and develop new skills or coping strategies.

Sometimes, disclosing Asperger’s Syndrome or NLD can transform the angry or hurt feelings of others to compassion and understanding. Recently, I received an email from someone who shared the Employer’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome with her supervisor. Once her boss understood that certain troublesome behaviors were not intentional (or personal), they were able to work well together.

Disclosure does not excuse undesirable behavior, or mean that it can continue. Neither does apologizing. The important thing is to listen to feedback from others, and show them with your actions that you are committed to change.

Note: The Employer’s Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome is available in a PDF at no charge (see the Resources tab of this Web site).


© 2013, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching.