Unintentional Communication at Work

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, November, 2015

The research of Albert Mehrabian (1) is frequently cited to illustrate the power of nonverbal communication. It showed that 93% of what people communicate about their feelings and attitudes is through their facial expression and the way that their words are spoken (e.g. tone or volume of voice).

Noticing and/or correctly interpreting the nonverbal cues of others is a common difficulty for people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD). Additionally, some individuals are unaware of the nonverbal messages they are sending. This can cause misunderstandings or conflicts in the workplace, as Trevor’s story demonstrates.

Trevor was hired into the accounting department of a manufacturing firm. His knowledge of accounting was strong. But from the start he had trouble communicating with his supervisor. His Asperger’s Syndrome made it hard for Trevor to process verbal information. When his supervisor gave him daily assignments verbally, Trevor couldn’t process all of the instructions. He would then forget some tasks or complete others incorrectly.

After three such incidents, Trevor’s supervisor suggested that he write the assignments down. He handed Trevor a pad of paper and a pen. This should have solved the problem. However, Trevor couldn’t keep up. He became increasingly anxious, and heard less and less of what was being said. Too afraid to ask his boss to slow down, at the end of the meeting Trevor said that the assignments were clear.

Trevor’s anxiety rose by the day. On Friday of his first week, his supervisor asked whether everything was okay. Trevor said, “Yes.” Then his boss asked, “Are you sure?” Trevor again replied in the affirmative. “I’m not sure I believe that,” his boss said. This offended Trevor, who thought that he was being called a liar.

At the end of his second week, Trevor was given a written warning. He was told that if his performance did not improve, he would lose his job. His supervisor thought that Trevor wasn’t focused, or trying hard enough. Trevor concluded that his boss didn’t like him, and contacted me for help finding a new job.

Trevor was not aware that his tense facial expression, lack of eye contact, and one-word answers to questions were communicating his internal anxiety and irritation. “Your boss wasn’t calling you a liar when he said that he didn’t believe you,” I said. “He saw that you were agitated and wanted to figure out what was wrong.”

I also offered my hypothesis that if the supervisor knew about Trevor’s difficulty processing the verbal instructions, he would speak more slowly.

Neurotypicals orient strongly to nonverbal cues (body language, facial expression, tone and volume of voice, gestures, etc.). They trust these impressions over the words that a person says. It can be confusing or annoying when someone denies being upset and his nonverbal signals say the opposite. Others may wonder whether they have done something wrong; or become frustrated that a problem can’t be discussed honestly.

“You are communicating nonverbally what you are feeling, but you need to explain with words what is happening,” I said. “Otherwise, your supervisor has to guess. And he might guess incorrectly that you are not listening to instructions or are unable to perform the job.”

Trevor did not want to disclose Asperger’s and ask for accommodations. Instead, he explained that he had an auditory processing problem and needed his boss to slow down. His supervisor agreed, and encouraged Trevor to tell him right away if he experienced future problems. Four months later, Trevor is happy at his job.

If you experience a strong emotion, it is probably noticeable to co-workers. Denying a problem, or refusing to discuss it, can make you appear to be unreasonable or immature. If you are unsure about whether or how to discuss an upsetting situation with your supervisor or a colleague, seek the advice of someone you trust.

1 Mehrabian, A. (1981) Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth (currently being distributed by Albert Mehrabian). 

© 2015, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching.