Monday 20 December 2021

Navigating awkward situations

Christmas is coming, that time of year when social interaction is not just encouraged but required. From an autistic point of view, it is challenging, as I have mentioned before.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the strategies I use to navigate awkward situations. These situations mainly occur at work. In general, I can manage them because there are rules of engagement for academics, such as disagreeing without it becoming personal (“disputation”, as it was once called). However, those rules do get broken and sometimes situations become highly charged and even personal too. 

I have three approaches to any interaction: silence, scripting, or casual. 

Silence occurs when I find myself confronted by complete unpredictability (for example being approached by a stranger, or too many people all at once). In such situations, I can get quickly overwhelmed. It is mostly involuntary. I don't choose to be silent - silence chooses me.

Scripting involves anticipating every likely path a meeting might take and being ready with a response. It’s like branching literature, or computer code. I find myself “reading” the dialogue in my mind as if it were written on the pages of a book, complete with “he said/she said”s. I was talking to a colleague the other day, who commented that I seemed to have anticipated every possible way in which the conversation could go. This was scripting in action. 

Casual interaction can only happen if it follows the pattern of something I have experienced before. Since I am now of fairly advanced years, many situations fall into this category. Even so, things can quickly shake me out of casual mode. Sometimes just the question “how are you?” leaves me floored, especially if I don’t know the person I am speaking to. I never really know how I am. I also know that people who ask that question do not really want to know how I am. It’s a minefield!

Whichever mode I adopt, there is always a possibility that a situation could take an unexpected turn. This can be very difficult to deal with. To try to manage these more awkward situations I have spent a lot of time over the years studying strategies. I read books of theory so that I can at least give the appearance of understanding what is going on. I can’t pretend that this approach is always successful, but I do try hard. Let me give two examples.

Back in the 1980s, Gavin Kennedy wrote a terrific book called Everything Is Negotiable, subtitled “how to negotiate and win”. I have not used it much for getting deals, as it intends, but I have deployed some of its principles in other situations. For example, there is a technique called “the Lazarus shuffle” in which you refer to someone who is not present in order to apply leverage. I have used that many times and it is often successful. The advantage of an absent authoritative figure is that they cannot easily be challenged. At the very least, you can achieve a delayed resolution with this technique.

Another idea I have studied and used many times is Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group formation, which basically goes: forming, storming, norming, performing. I am currently experiencing this scenario in an academic setting and, once again, it is proving to be incredibly accurate. It really helps my autism to be able to analyse the situation when we reach the “storming” phase. That way, I can avoid getting too distressed by the fraught social interactions taking place. It fulfils a similar function to being able to see photographs of a place before I visit, rendering it more predictably familiar and so reducing anxiety.

Now, of course, anybody could use these kinds of theories.There’s nothing particularly special about the fact that I do this. However, I think it is the rigour and consistency with which I apply them that is the autistic part. It is my attention to detail and awareness of how interactions conform to these patterns that sets me apart. I see similarities with chess: being able to anticipate moves and combinations of moves and being able to respond accordingly. Without some kind of “manual” of neurotypical behaviour like this, I would be completely lost.