Sunday, August 18, 2013

Power in the Palm of Your Hand

My sometimes...earthy...aunt had a picture of Las Vegas. The caption: "Poverty Sucks".

Well, powerlessness sucks too. Not to mention learned helplessness. And first hearing about Asperger Syndrome (AS) at the age of 34, after K-12, college, graduate school and years afterward, is a good way to develop learned helplessness.

Why bother to try to make friends, get dates or obtain good jobs? Sisyphus, please call your office!

Well, if you're reading this -- you've got power.

First off, knowledge is power. If you're reading this, you probably know whether you're an Aspie (someone who's on the autism spectrum) or an NT (someone who isn't, aka a neurotypical). And we, as a society, know a lot more about AS than we did even a decade ago. For example, a recent episode of the kids' show "Arthur" had a segment with a "guest star" Aspie character, explaining his traits (very strong interest in trains, focus on facts not feelings, insistence on routine, occasional meltdowns) and then showing a clip about Aspies in real life.

Once we know how we tend to differ from most people, we can adapt much more easily. For example, most NTs know about "the sandwich"*...when giving negative feedback or other bad news you may wish to start with good news, then give the unpleasant part and finish with more good news. If you just tell an Aspie that, s/he may wonder "What is this person talking about? People have to take time to even know what was actually said, and it's only logical to react the same way to the same thing no matter what came before or after it right?"

But once we know that (1) unlike us, NTs tend to process and respond to what's being said in real time and (2) most people -- and even including many Aspies -- care about when in a conversation something comes up**, we can understand the advice much better.

Why are we focusing on how people feel about what we say and do? Feelings matter. That's something we need to keep in mind if we want to get anywhere in life.

If we focus on, say, the fine points of app development or the history of Victorian art, and miss the subtle ways in which most NTs let each other (and us) know where they stand, it's easy to overlook how important it is to actually be liked and respected.

"Oh, I'm really smart, so they'll forgive my being blunt and 'weird'." Nope, not nowadays (if ever). People would rather work with a likable dunderhead than a brilliant boor -- even when they have to choose (which, thanks to early training in schools, they increasingly don't).

In any case, once you're smart enough to do the work -- which in most settings only requires either being average or on the bright side -- it all switches over to the social stuff. It's like getting into a top college*** -- a strong majority of the applicants can do the work. And you can only be so picky about grades and SAT/ACT scores, when you consider that for the most selective schools even a majority of applicants who are class valedictorians and salutatorians don't get in. So it's much more a matter of how kind and charitable he seems to be, or how inventive she is, or how well they can keep a group going when things get tough.

Well, guess what? Welcome to the working world. All your grey matter, your fancy degrees and your job skills (and maybe a referral or two) just get you in the door. After that, you need to show you can work in a team. Often under rapidly changing conditions. While multi-tasking sometimes.

For example, Inc. magazine recently published a very short list of tips for teams. First and foremost: pick folks with high emotional intelligence -- not necessarily book smarts.

"OK, so now what? How do I get the specific skills I need after all?"

Start with this classic. And then try this interpersonal skills system originally for cops on the beat. For both strategies and tactics on the job, check out this simple work by an experienced career writer. And this sophisticated law career guide (even if you never work in a law office!).

Last but not least, this world-class guide to talking tactics will get you through all kinds of conversations, work and otherwise.

Then, practice, practice, practice. Now that you know what to look for, see what kinds of things others say that please or piss off people. Look back on your previous interactions and try to figure out what went wrong. And try out new strategies yourself.

No, not all of the strategies will make sense to you. But their results sure will.

We now have the power to go wherever our natural talents and hard work might take us. Let's use it wisely!

[*] That having been said, George Thompson, the police officer who devised the above-linked Verbal Judo, has said that the sandwich method is outliving its usefulness. In particular, since most people know about it, if you start off by giving someone praise they'll tend to figure there's criticism coming up and they'll just brace themselves for that. He has recommended starting out with the feedback...but still finishing up with praise. So real-time processing and timing still matter.

[**] That's called the primacy effect and the recency effect. Basically, people feel most strongly about what comes first and what came last. They influence you emotionally, so it's easy to not realize that's what you're doing.

[***] Which I've done, btw. [Specifically, Cornell.]

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