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Help! My Friend is a Bit . . . Different

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a member of a coffee group with fifteen other ladies. We’ve met every other Friday for the past two years and we all get along great apart from one person who I will call Mary. Her conversation is limited to her allergies, card making, and ducks. On a recent trip, two of the ladies were miserable because she was with them for the whole day and they felt very frustrated in her company.

Some of us think Mary has autistic tendencies because she is so precise about every detail, has no sense of humor, and is not very aware of other people’s needs. I feel awful even making such an assumption but there is something “different” about Mary. I feel sorry for Mary as she doesn’t appear to have any other friends and I am glad we can include her; however, it’s starting to affect the group so much that one individual no longer wants to be a part and others don’t want to join in any activities if Mary is participating.

Should I have a conversation with Mary to explain how her monopolizing actions affect others, or should I have a conversation with the group to get them to be more tolerant of Mary?

Something about Mary

Dear Something about Mary,

This one’s easy. I think you should do both.

Well, that was the easy part, anyway. The rest could be tricky. I’m glad you love Mary and are sensitive to her needs. Because you care about her you are in the best position possible to make a difference for her. Here’s what I suggest.

First, help your friends recognize the passive aggressive way they’re dealing with things. It sounds to me like they’re talking with everyone about their frustrations with Mary except Mary. And even worse, they’re blaming Mary for the passive way they’re dealing with their frustration.

Now, I’ll acknowledge that even if they do everything right in the future, they still may find that Mary is unpleasant to be around. But until they own up to the fact that they’re blaming Mary for their own inaction they won’t be in a position to make that judgment fairly.

For example, if Mary goes on for an hour telling endless stories in excruciating detail about ducks and allergies, and your friends fail to intervene, then they colluded with her in the agenda of the hour. They are in no position to blame her exclusively for their misery. I could be wrong here, but in my experience, those who are least sensitive to social cues are also the least sensitive to social intervention. With people like this, I’ve found you can interrupt fairly abruptly and say something like, “Can I take the conversation in a different direction?” Then do it.

I once knew a man, for example, who never picked up on a hint that I wanted to end the conversation and leave. I would say, “Gotta wrap this up,” or, “I’ve got a meeting I need to get to soon,” and he would launch into another meandering narrative. I felt resentful of him until I realized the problem was not him, it was me. So I began to say, “I’m walking away in sixty seconds.” Then I would do it. And it worked. I felt less resentful of him because I was back in control of my life.

Second, develop a robust coaching contract with your friend. I think you’re wise to suspect that a mild form of Asperger’s or Autism could be involved given the range of behaviors you describe. I also respect the way you Master Your Story by speculating that these kinds of ability issues could be at play and not just a narcissistic personality. That kind of story tempers your judgments and helps you approach her with greater sympathy. Good for you!

Your goal in this crucial conversation is to come to agreement about some ways you will intervene to coach her when she’s annoying others. Here’s a possible approach:

1. Start with safety. “Mary, I’m glad I know you. I appreciate what you bring to our coffee group, and I hope that association continues for a long time. That’s why I want to talk with you. There’s something going on that I suspect you’re not aware of that is creating challenges in the group. I’d like to ask your permission to share what I’ve seen as a way of solving the problem and making it work for all of us for a long time to come. Would that be okay?”

2. Describe the behavior. Assuming you get her consent, briefly lay out the pattern you see. “A couple of weeks ago when we were together for the whole day, I noticed that at one point you spoke for about an hour without interruption. Others were feeling impatient that you were the only one speaking. I even found myself checking out.”

3. Manage safety. While sharing this data, be sure to pause and reassure her of your respect and intent. For example, at this point I might say, “I am pretty sure you weren’t doing that intentionally. That’s why I’m bringing it up. I assumed you’d want to know if you were doing something that wasn’t working. I really want to be a friend and make our group inclusive and pleasant.”

4. Back to the behavior. “Over the course of the day I don’t think I recall you asking questions of others. When you spoke it tended to be lengthy and exclusively about your own interests.”

5. Invite dialogue. At this point, allow her to express her views. “Did you see things differently? Or was something going on behind that pattern I’m not aware of?”

6. Offer a solution. Again, from your description I suspect this is an ability issue, not just a lack of motivation. If so, I advise you to offer to be her coach. “Mary, I can help with this. If you’re unaware of it, we could develop some ways I can let you know if you’re going too long or not asking questions. For example, what if I put a hand on your forearm and talk over you? Would that work?”

If she’s unable to recognize social cues, your cues will have to be pretty obvious. But the good news is that those who do lack social sensitivity—including those with Asperger’s or Autism—can respond to that kind of clear and assertive coaching.

I made a new friend last year with whom I love to spend time. She is brilliant and has had a storied life, but I cannot have a conversation with her that lasts less than an hour. If we schedule a lunch, it is very difficult to end it in less than two hours. After knowing her for a few months, I began noticing I was avoiding her and making excuses rather than talking. When I stopped and reflected on my behavior, I realized I was losing the benefit of her rich friendship because I was unwilling to intervene when things weren’t working. Since then, I have learned to be very direct very quickly with her. “Helen (not her real name), I don’t have time now. I can’t wait to hear that point when we get together next week.” And then I smile, give her a hug, and walk away.

Now I genuinely look forward to my time with Helen. I hope you can find a way to feel the same way about Mary.


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19 thoughts on “Help! My Friend is a Bit . . . Different”

  1. Reta

    I have a brother with Asperger Syndrome and this Causes him to be completely unable to read social cues. He longs to be liked, recognizes when he is not but has no idea why he is different. A loving direct approach is the best way forward. This is where a crucial conversation may not change the behaviour, as he truly can’t help himself, but it does clear the air and in a goup setting helps to create understanding. I have a son who actually loves being around others with Aspergers as he finds them to be brilliant and interesting to listen to as well he can feel free to talk extensively about the things that they have in common.

  2. Rebecca

    First of all, I’d like to say that you are being such a great friend to Mary by recognizing what’s going on and being concerned for her and not just with her. I agree with the comments above and encourage you to try them out. I worked with an individual who had similar difficulties in business meetings. We agreed that we would sit opposite each other and I signaled her with my eyes. It didn’t take too many meetings and we no longer had the need to do this. Good luck and thank you for caring and being willing to make a difference for your friend!

  3. Whitney

    Isn’t it interesting when we look at past people in our lives through the new lenses that recent psychology offer us? When an understanding of developmental disability helps you realize that a person’s way of coping was their best effort with the other factors they were contending with? I think of the loniness of people like Mary, and how once they move into adulthood with adult expectations for interaction, that isolation can be exacerbated.

    Thank you for the concrete approach to empowering the women in this group, and the rest of us, to be tolerant and inclusive in a loving way that also allows our needs for connection and conversation to be met.

  4. Darla Grossman,MD

    Another idea: consider tactfully referring her or helping her find psychological resources for testing/counseling to improve her life.

  5. Jackie Poulter

    Thank you all for your comments, they’re very helpful and constructive. I don’t want to let Mary down as she seems to benefit from the group meetings so much and I always make sure that I give her a hug when saying goodbye as her eyes seem to light with the affection shown. I will certainly take on board the suggestions that have been made and approach Mary as well as the other members of the group. I know that I need to do something as when we have days out Mary tends to latch on to me and nobody else then wants to join us. I don’t have a problem with her spending time with me but I don’t like that nobody else wants to join us!

    Thank you again.

  6. Stephanie Barbour

    Joseph’s responses are beautifully concrete and useful for the many times we blame others for our own inaction, not just with people who might have Aspergers or be on the Autism spectrum. However I have a 25 yr old daughter on the spectrum and being direct, warm-hearted and clear on my intention (mastering my stories) with my interventions is key to being with her. Psychotherapy is not; people w/ Aspergers type syndrome are not internally focused nor do they understand social codes which are inferential, but they respond very well to direct, clear and non-shameful direction. I’ve actually have found that we ALL respond well to that; those of us not on the spectrum just need a little more collaborative conversation. I love his intervention of “Can I take the conversation in a different direction?”

  7. Rebecca

    I echo the thank yous above because these direct conversations create deep compassion! Our friend group includes people with an assortment of interactional challenges and we have all striven to intervene directly and kindly. The magic is how close we all are as a result; we have productive disagreements about everything – politics, activity choices, where to go for dessert – but not about behavior between us and the fulfillment of having these honest, caring friends is boundless.

  8. Rebecca

    Thank you so much for publishing this. I believe this happens a lot more than we realize. As I was reading it, I came to the conclusion that sometimes, I can become lost in conversation. If I am not attentive to my time, I can get engrossed in fascinating conversation and lose all track of time. I would welcome and appreciate if other people would simply state: “You know, we have been talking for over an hour. We really should go!” Now that I have said that, I must use it the next time I get cornered by someone who wants to talk and talk. I like the other strategies that you mentioned as well. Especially the “hug and walk away.”

  9. karin

    I think this was the best advice I’ve read from these Q&As. Way to go. It’s good advice we can all use to make our conversations more efficient and enjoyable. Get rid of the emotions, just state the facts, show you care, and enjoy the conversation. Being up-front (in a non-threatening way that is matter-of-fact) can really prevent many instances of feeling frustrated by otherwise monopolized conversations. Really, it’s OK to step in and redirect a conversation. And very lovely of VS to be so considerate of someone’s disabilities too. We all have strengths and weaknesses, no two of us are the same– And we can all use help here and there. Great Job Joe & team!!

  10. elsy mejia-carpio

    My point of view reading this situation is that the Coffee Group is composed of so many people with different kind of behaviour. Since the majority of the group it seems afraid to get into the conversation either because they do not have nothig to said or because they are focusing on Mary’s issue only. To me it will be not prudent and I do not recommend that any of the group act as a psychologist or doctor to label Mary as having Asperger syndrome. It seems that the group is trying to label her in order to exclude themselves from their lack of social interactions. I recommend that all of them should try to talk and just do not let Mary to command the group. Mary may be think that all the group are enjoying her topic and she just keep talking about the same. Please do not tell Mary about any syndrome. Everyone as coworkers should recognize that they need to change their own behavior and share their own topics with the group. In life everyone have their own expertize or problems sharing them with other friends will increase their social interaction and friendship.

  11. Craig Battrick

    Joseph, this story was timely. Cheri and I spent an excruciating evening a couple of weeks ago with just such a person as Mary. We avoided her offer to attend another event with her the following night and thereby lost the opportunity to meet some new friends. Thanks for the help!

  12. SLCCOM

    Elsy, I don’t believe that anyone is suggesting that Mary be “labeled.” However, talking to her about the possibility of the autism spectrum can be extremely helpful, and a very loving thing to do. Just as you would alert a friend that they are behaving in a way that suggests that they have a hearing loss, someone who has unusual behaviors can find that the possibility of a medical explanation lifts a weight of guilt and fear that you are somehow “choosing” the behavior and just need to stop it.

    Not everyone is diagnosed in childhood. Indifferent parents, unassertive parents, ignorant parents, stubborn parents who absolutely will NOT entertain the thought that something is wrong with little Junior, and many other situations can lead to someone who needs some help not getting it.

    As for talking to the group, helping others realize that Mary may not just be a jerk reframes the entire situation into something where Mary can be helped, welcomed and everyone has the opportunity to grow. This will, in turn, help the other members of the group become sensitive to the others in their lives.

    This is not a matter of coworkers; it is a social group. Coworkers would make it an entirely different situation, as treating a coworker as if she is disabled can create serious problems for the company.

  13. Joseph Grenny

    Wow, Rebecca, you’re wonderful. I admire people who can read about others’ idiosyncrasies and use it as a path to discovering their own! @Rebecca

  14. Joseph Grenny

    Nice to hear from you, Craig! I’m glad the example was useful to you.
    @Craig Battrick

  15. Joseph Grenny

    Thanks to everyone for the encouraging words – Seems like most of us agree this is an “ability” not a “motivation” problem. And you can’t solve some ability issues with crucial conversations. The key is for us to be understanding and skillful in how we respond.

  16. Alicia

    Thank you, I am actually autistic and really liked this article, normally people just love to blame us for every social failure without remembering that it takes more than one person to have social communication. Actually people just exclude us so it was great to read this.
    I think those are helpful suggestions and it did something really rare that is to remember we are people with feelings.
    Maybe one day more people will try to include people like me.
    We normally care a lot about other people’s needs as long as we know what they are trying to tell us, talking openly and with respect is great for this, with all sides working to improve the situation there is a good chance this will work, for others that read this too.
    Just one thing I need to say, many of us have sense of humor, many do not.

  17. Alicia

    “Not everyone is diagnosed in childhood. Indifferent parents, unassertive parents, ignorant parents, stubborn parents who absolutely will NOT entertain the thought that something is wrong with little Junior, and many other situations can lead to someone who needs some help not getting it.”
    Many are not diagnosed and not because of bad parents, poor people, people of color, girls, non-Americans, lack of access to the rare doctor that know ASD without prejudice, all are risks of not getting a diagnosis even if parents look for them. Actually is common for parents to go to several professionals until finding one that wants to help with no prejudice and that knows what autism is. Don’t blame parents, many fight for years to get help.
    I agree with the rest of the comment, being ‘labeled’ is not bad, being on the autism spectrum is not bad, and for adults is very liberating and helpful. The only times the diagnosis looks bad is when a person knows others with bias against autistic people and give the wrong messages of us being inferior and broken.

  18. Joseph Grenny

    Thank you for sharing your personal insights, Alicia. I think the points you make are profoundly generalizable. So often we wring our hands rather than talk openly about things which just increases discomfort and undermines relationship. It’s not just ASD – but if I lost my job, lost my faith, lost my spouse – people seem paralyzed with fear about mentioning the obvious. The key to greater intimacy is openness not defensiveness.
    Your invitation of that openness with people who share your condition is a great one!

  19. grizzly bear mom

    Regarding your strange friend: when I was on active duty in the states, my husband was deployed overseas. Evidently I missed our conversations because a while later one of my co workers asked “Don’t they let you talk at home?” Perhaps Mary has and never had anyone to interact with at home and hasn’t learned social niceties and small talk. Is she a recent widow, lost a loved one, empty nester or retiree and intimidated outside of conversing on allergies, ducks and cards?

    To me it seems more loving, wise and courageous to say “My goodness Mary. We certainly want your input on more than ducks. What do you think of these photos of my grandchildren/new drapes/prize roses or the new Quarter Ponder?” or to schedule discussing travel plans next month than to provide an armature diagnoses of a mental illness.

    They say if you hear hoof beats don’t look for zebras on Main Street.

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