The way we manage conflicts needs to take neurodiversity into consideration – Nonprofit AF

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[Image description: Drawing of a profile of a human head, showing a cross section of the brain. Radiating white lines are shooting out of the brain, on light blue and dark blue background. Image by geralt on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. This is going to be a long post. And it’s one of the more difficult posts for me to write, because I am not an expert in neurodiversity, or conflict management, or how the two might intersect. And I don’t know enough to know whether I would be considered neurodiverse/divergent or not, though I’ve been told I exhibit some signs of inattentive ADHD. For example, being constantly distracted even during the middle of conversations and tasks (at this moment, for instance, I am trying very hard not to spend the next two hours googling the history of marshmallows, because that’s what randomly popped into my mind ten minutes ago while I was writing this paragraph, and now it haunts me). Colleagues made fun of the fact that I wrote notes on my hands, forgot basic information while remembering obscure facts, doodled and sometimes stared into space during meetings, and that my desk and office were always a trash fire of hummus-stained post-it notes and bags and boxes of miscellaneous stuff. This is balanced out by occasions when I get excessively focused and absorbed in a task, like the one time I was so engrossed in writing this blog post at the airport that I missed my plane even though I was sitting right in front of the gate and they called my name several times.

I know that neurodiversity is a huge umbrella that includes many different types, including autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, sensory integration disorder, dysgraphia, synesthesia, anxiety, and many others. For the sake of this topic, I’m going to simplify it into “thinking and processing information in ways that may not be typical of how most people think and process information.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot because with everything that’s been going on and how stressed everyone is, I’ve been seeing a lot more conflicts in the sector. Some of it is heartbreaking, including conflicts I’m involved in, with and among people I care deeply about.

Unfortunately, the conflict-resolution tools and techniques we’ve been relying on don’t always work, or are actually making things worse, because these tools and techniques were designed with neurotypical people in mind, with the grounding assumptions that everyone involved in the conflict will have the same thought patterns, the same way of absorbing, interpreting, and communicating information.

Years ago, I worked with a colleague, “Anna.” In every meeting, she would ask questions relentlessly, or make suggestions that were so unusual that people wouldn’t know how to respond. In many group and one-on-one interactions, she missed hints and clues that were seemingly obvious to the rest of the team. What was overlooked was Anna was brilliant. When her endless curiosity was satisfied, she came up with creative ideas that none of us thought of. She was reliable, kind, and thoughtful. The parents of the kids in the program were sometimes mystified after talking to Anna, but their kids loved her.

Unfortunately, after a while, Anna’s coworkers became frustrated. Her questions, non-sequiturs, and inability to grasp basic social cues were affecting their work. They started to exclude her from conversations, decisions, and social invitations. Anna was hurt and confused, not understanding what was happening. The mediation the admin staff tried to do helped in some ways, but probably also made some things worse. We just assumed that this was a communication style and values difference, and we just needed to go through the stuff we were taught in conflict mediation workshops, which never mentioned neurodiversity. We never even considered it.

Over the past few years, our society and sector have advanced in this area a bit. We are now talking about neurodiversity more and have language around it that we can use. We are still behind, but we are getting more thoughtful about the fact that people think and process differently. I see more speakers and facilitators, for example, giving people a few minutes to silently and individually digest information that was just presented before asking the whole group to respond. More and more organizations are providing job interview questions in advance so that candidates can have time to think and reflect. As some of us start to get back to being in the office (for better or worse), we’re having more communications about what’s best for each of us; some colleagues really need a space free of distraction to think, for example, while others need some stimulation from their environment to do their best work.

With conflicts, though, most of us are still relying on tools and strategies that may not have been updated to include neurodiversity. This means that while we may be thoughtful about neurodivergent colleagues when everything is going well, we throw this consideration out the window when there’s conflict, relying on the same neurotypical-leaning skills and tactics we were taught. This is unfortunate, because moments of crises and tensions are when we most need to be reminded that we all think and process information differently. Tools such as the five conflict management styles and I-statements can be helpful, and I use them often. But they rarely address neurodiversity. I’ve googled “neurodiversity and conflict resolution” and found very few articles on this topic; here’s one that mentions how 30% of the general population may have some form of neurodiversity, so this is something we need to pay attention to.

I don’t know how conflict resolutions tools and trainings may change when we incorporate neurodiversity, but I am excited to see us explore this critical area. In the meanwhile, here are some things that I learned from Anna and other neurodivergent colleagues that may be helpful. Of course, neurodiversity is not monolithic, so please keep in mind that some approaches may be helpful sometimes with some folks, and not at other times or with other colleagues. Just like with all the posts on this website, please use what’s useful and ignore the rest, and if you are neurodivergent, please correct anything I got wrong and add to the conversation in the comment section.

1.See the strengths and advantages of neurodiversity: Neurodivergent colleagues may have habits and behaviors that are confounding to neurotypicals. These differences though are often seen as liabilities and weaknesses. Sometimes they are. But often they come with tons of awesome benefits, including creativity, ability to piece disparate elements together, and skills in solving problems in ways others may not have thought of. My brain being constantly and easily distracted, for example, makes writing these blog posts very challenging sometimes. It may not seem like it, but I have to fight with myself to get a coherent post down each week (seriously, who invented marshmallows, how are they made, and do they still use marshmallow roots? Can I grow marshmallow roots?). However, this same brain is responsible for my ability to recognize patterns, link seemingly unrelated concepts together, and to find and use creative analogies and humor to get important points across. Practice seeing the strengths and assets that neurodivergent colleagues bring.

2.Don’t expect mind-reading: For various reasons, including not hurting one another’s feelings, we’ve developed habits of hiding what we mean behind layers and layers of subtle cues and subtexts. We say “I’m not sure that will fly with the rest of the group” when we really mean “I don’t agree with that plan.” We say “It took a while to stack all those chairs because it was just me and Joe who stayed behind” when we mean “Hey, Joe and I stayed behind and stacked chairs, which took a lot of time. Can we agree on a rotating schedule of who stays behind at events to clean up?” It’s tiring having to decipher clues and figure out what people actually mean. I can imagine how even more exhausting it is for neurodivergent colleagues. So many conflicts arise because people are not always able to decipher our subtle cues the way neurotypicals want them to be deciphered. Let’s try to say what we mean, mean what we say, and not expect one another to be mind-readers.

3.Check your assumptions: We’ve done a better job understanding that people from different cultural backgrounds may behave differently than what we’re used to. For example, many of us know that in some cultures, avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect. But we are still far behind when it comes to awareness, understanding, and working with neurodivergent colleagues, so we rely on assumptions that may not be accurate. Constantly remind yourself that not everyone is neurotypical. After that, check for other assumptions you may be making. For example, some people have trouble recognizing and mirroring facial expressions. So if you’re having a conflict mediation session and you’re being very serious and looking concerned, but the person you’re in conflict with keeps smiling, you may have the assumption that they are mocking you or not taking it as seriously, when the reality may be far from that.

4.Examine your idea of clarity. So many conflicts arise because we have different expectations, definitions, and values. A technique that is then often used is to get all parties to clarify what they mean. However, we don’t talk enough about meta-clarity, or clarity around what clarity actually looks like to each of us. What is clear to you may not be clear to others. For instance, let’s say you have a supervisee who has been underperforming for months. You want to warn them that they could get fired if they don’t improve. You meet with them and say “I am concerned about your performance around [xyz]. I’m afraid that if there’s no progress in these areas, it may affect your continued employment.”  That may be pretty clear to you, but to someone who processes information differently, that may not be clear, but may actually be confusing. If what you really mean is “if you don’t improve in xyz areas by next month, as measured in these ways, you will get fired,” then say so. Otherwise you may not just have conflict around the central issue, but also conflicts around whether something was clear or not.

5.Try a less intense approach. What I’ve observed in working with colleagues, both neurotypical and neurodivergent, is that a direct approach that’s grounded in some grace and possibly humor can be really effective. It may be even more so with neurodivergent colleagues, probably because neurotypical people are often extremely judgmental of, or else entirely avoid, neurodivergent people. In college I had a friend, “Vinh,” an international student. Vinh was one of the smartest people I knew, and also one of the kindest. But he had trouble reading social cues, and often jumped into conversations with random facts, especially about military history, of which he had encyclopedic knowledge. Because of this, he developed a reputation as an awkward know-it-all, and people avoided him instead of giving him any feedback, which was extremely hurtful. My other friends and I hung out with Vinh, but we were also often exasperated, and we didn’t have the concept of neurodiversity to understand the situation. I was trying to figure out a time to pull him aside to have a Very Serious Discussion, but one of my other friends blurted out “Vinh, as interesting as your military facts are, I can only handle three of them per conversation. My brain will explode after that!” Vinh found that amusing, and agreed to cut down on the random facts. Before launching into a Very Serious Discussion, maybe try this approach.

6.Avoid triangulation like the plague: We have a terrible habit in the workplace of triangulation, where instead of communicating directly with the person we have a conflict with, we complain about this person to someone else, pulling them into the conflict. This is extremely destructive (my friend and colleague Ananda Valenzuela constantly reminds us that triangulation is one of the horsemen of dysfunctional teams). Our general inexperience in recognizing neurodiversity and in working with neurodiverse colleagues ramps up triangulation even further. We talk to one another about how exasperating certain colleagues are. This builds and reinforce terrible narratives about our colleagues, many of whom are neurodivergent. Avoid triangulation. When you find yourself in conflict with someone, figure out how to talk to them directly, and keep in mind that what you think of as “direct” may actually be your neurotypical definition of direct. And if you find yourself pulled into a triangle that has nothing to do with you, encourage the person to communicate with the other person; coach them on what to say, if needed, but do not further the conflict by getting entangled yourself.

7.Have preemptive conversations around neurodiversity: We don’t talk enough about neurodiversity and so many of us don’t even consider it on a day-to-day basis, the way we consider other factors such as cultural differences (which we also need to do a better job at). Have conversations with your team. Make time to talk about what people need to be successful, while being thoughtful about not forcing people to disclose private health or mental health information. Use this blog post as a starting point if that’s helpful. Make time for trainings and discussions. Talk about how to best communicate and work with one another in general, but also around how to give and receive feedback and how to handle conflicts when they arise. Examine the assumptions in society that are created by neurotypical people and how they affect neurodivergent colleagues. Have agreements to stop triangulation. Ensure trainers and facilitators that you bring in to talk about neurodiversity are neurodivergent/neurodiverse themselves.

The tools that so many of us have learned—whether it’s for conflict resolution, or strategizing, or communications, or public speaking, or anything else—are analogous to scissors. Most scissors are designed for right-handed people. They work great if you’re righthanded, but they are awful if you are not. (To see what it’s like, grab the nearest pair scissors and try to use it with your left hand to make a paper snowflake if you are right-handed). The tools and concepts we learn can be great and very helpful for neurotypical people, and for situations when most people involved are neurotypical. We need to be more cognizant that they don’t always work for neurodivergent colleagues. When it comes to conflict, we need to be even more vigilant, because there is a greater chance that these tools are not only not helpful, but could possibly worsen things.

All of us have been stretched nearly to our breaking point, like marshmallows being pulled apart, and things are likely going to remain stressful for a while, and conflicts are going to arise. It’s important that we take time to examine the philosophies, practices, tools, concepts, and resources we’ve been relying on to ensure that they consider and work with neurodiversity.

(And yes, I did take several breaks to learn about marshmallows, whose history goes back thousands of years, possibly to Ancient Egypt.)

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