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Difficult or Different: Managing Neurodiversity at Home and Work

"I just don't feel like I'm getting through to him," she lamented. I nodded. Her comment echoed sentiments I heard in my work as a couple’s counselor, but this was a manager speaking about her direct report.

"I look right at him, and he looks at me. He nods and engages in the conversation. Later, when we talk again, it is as if we had never spoken. Did he even hear me?" she wondered with exasperation.

"Yes," I acknowledged, "I imagine you may wonder if you are wasting your breath."

"What do you think is going on with him?" I asked. (Admittedly, I had my suspicions based on the examples she had given me over time, the full context, and the pervasiveness of his behaviors.)

"I don't know," she responded. She described the associate as quite intelligent, cordial, dependable, productive, and capable…in most respects. He has been there for years and seemed to have positive intentions. There was just something about him that seemed, well, “off” to her.

She mentioned that he became defensive and dismissive when she questioned whether he heard her. He repeated the words she previously spoke verbatim to demonstrate that his hearing is “just fine.” She speculated that, if he is hearing her yet not adjusting his behavior, there must be another issue. Lack of respect? Passive-aggressive defiance? Arrogance?

The therapist in me threw out another possibility, albeit with caution. Perhaps the person is neurodivergent?

Simply stated, neurodivergent refers to differences in neurological functioning. The term describes patterns of thinking and behaving that are seen in certain individuals, which include difficulties with few, or many, of the following:

Identifying and expressing feelings, and understanding others’ emotions and intentions

Interpreting social interactions, body language, facial expressions, and other cues

Rigid, black-and-white thinking patterns, or egocentric thinking that fails to consider others’ perspectives

Understanding nuances of conversation like reciprocity, nonliteral meanings, analogies, tone, volume, pace, and inflection

Adapting to changes in schedule or plans, unexpected pivots, or when others change their minds

Managing impulsive and emotional reactions/responses when frustrated; an absence of emotional response when expected; or an inappropriate emotional response in context (such as laughing when describing a sad situation.)

While there are many nuances and explanations for the differences in brain functioning, the question remains: How do I interact with any person who thinks so differently than myself?

1. First, acknowledge the differences. Yes, neurological differences are very real as MRI studies of brains demonstrate (even between male and female brains.) When you interact with a person over time, you may notice that you do not seem to be “in sync” with each other interpersonally. In the opening story of this article, a person appeared to be listening and understanding. In reality, the person heard, may have understood, but clearly did not complete the communication loop by responding with a commitment to do what was asked.

2. Adjust your expectations and communications accordingly. If you feel frustrated with someone repeatedly, but continue to interact in the same manner, you will reap more frustration. For example, with the associate described above, failing to gain a verbal commitment from them around doing something differently will result in unmet expectations. You may ask, “Would you tell me what you heard and what you will commit to doing as a result?” or “My understanding is that we are agreeing to (insert commitment.) Is that an accurate statement?”

3. Be direct. Neurodiverse minds often do not read between the lines, take hints, grasp hidden meanings, or follow the societal norms of polite conversation. Stating your thought directly with a neurodiverse person is best, such as “When you say ‘You didn’t tell me…’ I hear blaming. Blaming causes me to feel angry at you and hurts our communication. Please consider saying, ‘I didn’t know’ instead. May I bring blaming to your attention in the future to increase awareness?”

4. Provide time for mental processing and practice patience. The neurodiverse brain may be interpreting and filtering incoming language while you wait for a response. Their first response may seem delayed, or it may not be on topic, concise, or definitive. The individual may respond with a confusing question. This may seem to be manipulative when it probably is not. Again, as stated in steps one and two, acknowledge the difference, adjust your expectations, pause, and allow space for more back-and-forth in the dialogue to increase the chance of getting in step with each other.

5. Deal with defensiveness or verbally aggressive statements directly. You may say, “I’m hearing you say it wasn’t your fault and blaming me for the situation. I would prefer to address the problem at hand, not spar. Would you prefer to table this and come back to it at (fill in the time) when cooler heads prevail?” If the person will not back down, their brain has been emotionally hijacked, and they have taken a position of power. Nothing productive will occur in a power struggle, so it is best to table the conversation, take time away, and regroup. When you regroup, you may want to be direct (step 3) in stating, “Our conversation felt aggressive and that erodes feelings of trust. I would prefer to focus on problem-solving, not verbal sparring.”

6. Take time to teach. If the person has a pattern of overstepping boundaries, being defensive, or ignoring requests for action, be proactive in addressing the issues and do so very bluntly. Provide the exact language or behavior you would prefer to see; provide resources on emotional and conversational intelligence to spur growth and development; recommend specialized coaching; and patiently explain that people may think differently but mature, respectful interactions are the standard. Also explain the natural consequences that will occur if the behaviors continue.

Whether we have a neurodiverse spouse, child, manager, or staff member, the communication challenges require energy, time, and tremendous patience. Keeping neurodiversity in mind allows us to attribute behaviors and mindsets to the differences in brain functioning rather than personalizing the words, interpreting behaviors as manipulative, or assigning bad intentions to the person which only alienates people. Also, remembering our separateness, especially when emotions are high, allows us to put responsibility on the other for their choices while we maintain a calm approach.

Diversity confronts our human desire for the familiar, comfortable, and predictable. And yet diversity stretches us into new ways of thinking, feeling, understanding, and doing.

If we are stretching, we are growing.

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