Help! My Friend is a Bit . . . Different
Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
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.