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Missing Social Cues

The following article was first published on December 29, 2004.

Dear Kerry,

I’m faced with the challenge of training people who are rather low self-monitors. That is, they don’t read social cues particularly well and as a result often annoy or offend others. They tend to push too hard or talk about topics that others are no longer interested in or simply hang back and don’t offer their ideas when they should. Many are skilled professionals in their field but since they don’t come off well in social interactions, they are being discounted. Our company can’t afford the luxury of not hearing from or discounting the opinions and ideas of some of our best thinkers.

Here’s the problem: when I work with this particular group, many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side. They view social skills training in general as a waste of time and the fact that they are in particular need of it often escapes them. How can I deal with this sensitive situation?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, it’s important to make sure those you’re training understand that using crucial skills in the workplace isn’t about looking pleasant or making people happy. Effective employees don’t charm people into their good graces. If anything, they’re tough on infractions, violations, and failed promises. They confidently step up to problems and hold the other person accountable.

Honest, complete, and effective communication is about getting the results you want and need. Interpersonal skills matter because you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. People who “don’t work and play well with others” cause companies fits. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.

That said, the challenge here lies in first helping people realize that they aren’t reading the cues well, and second, helping them apply high-level reasoning to an activity that most people do intuitively (picking up on social cues). It turns out that the first challenge isn’t all that great. Most people who stumble in social settings are well aware of the fact that they aren’t doing well. They’ve been given more than enough feedback over the years to realize that they don’t always shine in complex social interactions. They know this in general, but still struggle in the moment. Many also realize that the typical training they’ve been given or books they have been asked to read haven’t given them much help. This is often because the material deals with what to do and say but offers little to no help when it comes to when and how. This is where they struggle. They don’t know when because they aren’t reading the cues and they often don’t know how because they aren’t reading the responses well enough to then make subtle adjustments to their behavioral attempts.

What’s a person to do? We all need help in reading social cues, some just more than others. If you’re offering social skills (influence, accountability, communication) training for those who have been tagged at risk, spend as much time talking about the entry condition or cue to the skill in question as you do on the skill itself. This can feel odd because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. In fact, we all have problems at times. For instance, when we’re caught up in an argument, all of us have missed the process of what’s going on around us and plowed on ahead no matter how others respond. We’ve all seen people resist our ideas only to push harder and cause more resistance. In short, we all missed the cues.

Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that you’ll need to slow down the skill you’re teaching. Focus on what others are doing or saying BEFORE the skill is called for and actually spend time looking for both the verbal and nonverbal cues that would drive a person in one direction or another. Then look at how people might respond to what you’ve just learned—with particular emphasis on what it looks like when the skill is working and when it isn’t. “Oops, that didn’t work. Let me try something else.” Once again, this calls for slowing down, looking for both verbal and nonverbal hints, talking about them, and then identifying where to go given the response. It’s a little hard to describe this in the abstract, but this ability to read social cues lies at the heart of your problem and you won’t be providing people the full solution to their problem if you merely focus on the traditional elements of influence or communication training.

Good luck with a challenging and often touchy task.

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13 thoughts on “Missing Social Cues”

  1. Holly Smock

    With the high occurrence of Asperger’s syndrome and autism spectrum disorders in Gen Y , this is getting increasingly challenging. Currently published statistics state that Prevalence in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 births.Recent studies have indicated it may be 1 in 42. More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. Employees don’t readily admit to disabilities and many are not diagnosed. As a parent of a 20 year old with Asperger’s I have found the materials and training offered for dealing with him very valuable in dealing with these difficult employees. You are right that we have to slow down the skill and make it almost individualized when we are mentoring these employees.

  2. Jane

    Sometimes I wonder if the lack of accepting diversity in our coworkers, friends and/or family, keeps those who are “different” sheltered in their offices, cubes or homes. Pretending like you are a penguin isn’t easy if you are a giraffe.

  3. Irene Reiche

    Some of us have a physical disability, that is we are on the autism spectrum, and so have trouble reading social cues. When dealing with us, the other party must state directly what they want or think. We cannot read there social cues. One should read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and also watch the movie “The Imitation Game”. I studied Advanced Calculus at Queen’s for fun; but I am physically unable to read social cues of humans, except certain cues that I have been trained to watch for as part of job, such as a man opening and closing his fist repeatedly before he starts assaulting you.

  4. George

    I’m one of those people who does not read social cues well.
    In one of my previous jobs, my boss called me in to tell me that several of my direct reports had complained that they thought I was being disrespectful in certain situations. Since more than one person had said something I didn’t doubt that there was a problem, but I honestly had no clue what I was doing, and the second-hand information that my boss was able to give me didn’t have enough detail for me to remember the incidents. It was really frustrating to know that I was doing something wrong, but not knowing what it was so that I could fix it.
    Finally at a staff meeting I flat out said it is not my intention to disrespect you, I apologize that I am coming across that way, and the next time it happens, PLEASE pull me aside ASAP and tell me I did it again, because at this point I am completely oblivious to the behavior and I can’t fix it until I know what “it” is. IIRC nobody ever did call me on it and my boss didn’t have another conversation with me about the problem, so to this day I don’t know whether I unconsciously fixed the behavior or if that group of employees just took me at my word that I wasn’t trying to disrespect them and stopped being upset.

  5. John M. Green

    From 2004, before today’s wider understanding of previously undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome in some of our most skilled professionals.

    A key observation in this article is that, “…many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side.”…a perfect observation of one of the hallmark traits of those of us with Asperger’s, and one that no amount of “training” will ameliorate. Also, “Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.”, is absolutely true, but it’s the companies themselves who require training to better understand the traits of these employees. Otherwise, especially in highly political environments, the companies will miss their sometimes crucial contributions, and, more importantly, it has a profoundly negative effect on some of these individuals – often the only ones who clearly see problems and solutions without the distorting lens of “political reality” getting in the way of what I call Actual Physical Reality.

    It is the companies themselves who are blind to the fact that they have a blind spot, especially when the Emperor so plainly has no clothes. And it is the responsibility of HR departments, who frequently are used to ‘discipline’ these politically unskilled employees into ‘compliance’, to understand and educate companies and their training staffs about the characteristics, deficits, and, most especially, uniquely unmatched skills that we Aspies bring to the table. These Humans are the ones who are blind to the uniquely and crucially skilled Resources that otherwise go to waste.

    Otherwise, we all lose…well, except those who are politically skilled, especially in environments that value orthodoxy over Reality.

  6. Dr. Patricia Pitsel

    It is quite possible that some of the people who are having problems have Asperger’s Syndrome (which can vary in intensity). They are frequently very bright and do well at complex technical tasks but not so well at situations where reading social cues are critical. A training class is not the optimum way of managing this population.

    1. Kaisu MA, RYT

      Yes. It is not all about training, it is a lot about ENVIRONMENT that counts. Sure we people are part of the environment… What could be used is a Third space, a service design concept, that brings the concept of permaculture from agriculture to the context of social wellbeing … called Inspiration Space. I have been working on this concept over 20 years on my free time, … juts to become to understand that I am an aspie myself, and this is a solution that could work for many of us, aspies or not. My challenge is and has been to invite other people to build a prototype and test this idea that combines everything I have learned in over 40 years as an artist, student, performer, yoga and meditation and make-up art teacher, and as a mom and wife.

  7. Dave

    Wow… what an article. I’ve often felt that I must have been “behind the door” when they handed out the Social Cues skills, and now I know why. My dad seemed to lack social cues skills, and my son seems to have a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome (he also is good at calculus like some of the folks who left comments above) showing that he is very bright but has some crippling social inabilities. Thanks for this article! I need help.

  8. Carolyn

    From reading this my first thought is that maybe some of these people have Aspergers or Autism. I would be sensitive to this as a possibility when addressing any defecits in communication skills.

  9. slccom

    Hearing loss can also be an issue. If I don’t’ hear the mutters, how can I respond?

  10. Grizzly bear mom

    Some people are introverts. They don’t have excess energy for interactions and so they avoid them, to their detriment. They may benefit from coaching such as being advised to say good morning on arrival, smiling at people in the hallway, speaking peoples’ name as you pass, etc.

  11. Missing social cues

    […] Missing Social Cues […]

  12. GW

    As an Aspie, I cannot read social cues, but in my career in highly technical fields I could be a strong advocate for my (correct) reasoning because neurotypicals are dull witted. I did not let them know what I thought of their dysfunctional social minds but instead patiently shared my knowledge and experience to field teams that succeded while carving out my role. That gained me a lot of inter-discipline influence so I was given a lot of slack and freedom.

    Contrast that to my social performance where I felt socially/sexually isolated. I cannot read any social cues. Things were getting so bad that I not only tried masking to present decently, I went way, way, out of my comfort zone to approach women. It was so disturbing to me when I was seen as welcome as a turd in a punchbowl and left me feeling even more damaged. I am amazed that I did not become a misogynist.

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