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.
The first rule I’ve learned from Tanya is that whenever something goes wrong I should say “I’m sorry“.
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.
The second rule Tanya has taught me is “How can we work this out?” I’m still learning this one as I don’t always notice when I’m in a situation that needs this rule.
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?”
Interestingly, research shows that if you apologize for things outside your control people regard you as more trustworthy.
You can watch the streaming video of the CWA Conference Interruptus.
Well well. you have gone and done it. made it so stinkingly easy to improve my relationships if only I would say “I’m sorry” and think of others before I go off into the wild world of my selfish endeavors !
I guess I’m one of those that needs to hear it more often as it doesn’t always sink in deep enough for me to remember in times of real embarrassment. I often dine on large plates of crow.
the tough part is to conquer my “immediate reaction” which is governed by my ego. I still have a long way to go on that one. One does not need to be labeled in any way to benefit from your blog today. keep it simple, and think of others first. now I have no excuses !! MFP
That Tanya! She is full of excellent and practical advice, these things so simple and yet they trip us up amazingly often. I think I have a different problem which is excessive apologizing — and I sometimes fall into the trap of using “I’m sorry” in a routine way that can be diminishing to me and meaningless to others. David says apologies don’t do much for him, he wants actions and not words, so that’s another trap we get into sometimes. The key for me is wanting to be heard and that the other person understands what the impact has been on me (which you outlined above). That matters the most to me. Great thought-provoking posts Alec, keep em coming.
Nancy, your comments made me think. When Alec apologises to me, I do feel better, but it’s not enough. It calms me down enough though, so that I am now able to have a rational discussion on how we can do things differently, better, etc, and THAT is what makes me feel heard and cared for. A simple apology, especially one said routinely and repetitively, without any change in behaviour, is more infuriating than helpful for me.
In what you describe, it appears that there is something you keep doing, and then keep apologizing for it, but don’t change your actions. In that case, Alec’s second point becomes relevant: maybe its time to talk about “how can we make this work for both of us?”
At the end of the day, the words are a way to change our actions, and if the actions don’t change as a result of the words, then they are meaningless and empty.
Thanks for making me think more deeply about all this….:-)