We were standing by the coffee machine at work talking when my friend Cynthia said she thought I was artistic. I was of course flattered and asked her to explain more. Was she saying the software I wrote was artistic? Or was she talking about the art I used to do and have hanging in my house? She replied that she had said autistic not artistic. To my ear they both sound the same in an American accent. But secretly I was even more pleased to be told I was autistic as it let me off the hook – now I wasn’t responsible for any weird behavior. I could blame it all on autism.
When I mentioned what Cynthia had said to Tanya, Tanya told me she thought I have mild Asperger’s. Well, that was even better because now I have yet more excuses for weird behavior. Except that most women probably think their men have Asperger’s.
But even if I think being mildly autistic gives me an excuse, no one else does. I still have to be thoughtful and considerate with Tanya and other people. One thing Tanya gives me a pass on though is being empathetic. She doesn’t think I’m capable of empathy (although, again, I suspect most women think this of their men) and so she’s sympathetic to my having to create rules for dealing with relationships. In fact she has helped me create some of those relationship rules. Here are two of them.
No excuses, no “but”. Just “I’m sorry”.
My normal tendency is for my ego and self-importance to get in the way, to think: it’s not my fault; why am I always the one who has to apologize?; why don’t you apologize if this is such an important rule? But at the same time I realize that a) I will continue to exist even if I apologize for something that I don’t really think is all my fault, and b) the tension usually completely disappears when I apologize. We all want to be heard, and an apology is a very simple way to tell someone you have heard them.
I’ve even started mentally willing other people to apologize – come on, a simple apology will make things so much better. I noticed this just yesterday while I was watching the Conference Interruptus panel at the Conference on World Affairs. There has been a lot of tension and hostility between the new Director on the one side and staff and volunteers on the other side, and a panel was created for a public discussion of some of the issues. I was thinking how simple it would be if the Director would simply say, “I apologize. It’s been difficult for me trying to fill the shoes of my long-time and well-respected predecessor. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have not paid enough attention to what I can learn from all the wonderful people who have been involved in the Conference for many years.” It would have cost nothing except a little pride, and would have got a lot more of the audience on his side. But ego is a powerful force.
Basically it means that if I want to do something like take the car to go for a long hike, I need to consider the impact on Tanya, and I need to be concerned about what she will do. “I’d like to do Xxx hike and I’ll be gone all day and will need to take the car. And I want to make sure you have a good day and do what you want to do. How can we work this out?”
The key aspects of this approach are that it shows I’m considering Tanya’s needs, and also I’m involving her in the solution. I’m not trying to solve the problem myself, and neither am I making it all her responsibility. On a surface level I’m saying: “I have some needs I want to meet, and I also want to make sure your needs are met. How can we do this?” On a deeper level I’m saying: “I care about you. You are important to me.”
Applying these two rules has made life much easier and more pleasant. I’m sure none of my readers have any form of autism 🙂 so I’m intrigued – how do you manage relationships? Do you have rules you try to follow?
Links and Other Clicks
Peter Thiel famously said “There is a strange phenomenon in Silicon Valley: Many founders seem to have some kind of Asperger’s, are bad at understanding social cues. What does it say about our society when they are the innovators, and normal people basically learn to conform?”