Wednesday, January 26, 2011

NT Planet: Superior Forms of Communication

Looking for an excellent guide to the "hidden curriculum" of law firms and law careers? Kimm Alayne Walton's book What Law School Doesn't Teach You...But You Really Need to Know fills the bill.

For example, on page 194, she points up the dilemma faced by a law student who had just gotten a job offer from a law firm:

The managing partner had sent him a letter inviting him to the firm's annual golf outing. The letter included the line, "We know you may not golf, I don't, but I participate every year." The [soon-to-be-lawyer] asked [his law school's] career services director, "Do I really have to go? I've got to study for the Bar exam. And I don't golf!" She responded, "Absolutely! You should tell them that you're really excited about it, but you've never held a golf club."

He protested, but she continued, "You don't know if this is an event you can blow off. The tone of the letter suggests that every lawyer in the firm goes. If they all do it, you can't turn down the invitation."

[Emphasis added.]

NTs tend to be hypocritical about certain things, including superior-subordinate relationships. They don't always like to let it show that they're ordering a subordinate to do something...but they do expect the subordinates themselves to understand.

Such as with events like golf outings. On the one hand, the point of something that looks like fun is that it's supposed to "be" fun. And that's kind of hard to reconcile with subordinates being ordered to participate.

On the other hand, those in charge want everyone to participate in certain things, perhaps to give a show of having fun and help the superiors feel happy about putting on a good event. Other reasons may include helping the people relax and get to know one another better, and helping superiors observe subordinates under more relaxed conditions. For example, is Lucy really a sticker for detail? Put her in charge of the refreshments and let's find out!

Such knowledge is supposed to help everyone work together better. That's why the superiors ask subordinates to come and take part. But it destroys much of the point if the subordinates feel forced to do so.

Superiors manage this tension by putting certain obligations in softer terms. They don't necessarily say "You must do this" but rather something like "Even though I don't typically do this activity, I'm taking part here." The message is "This event is for everyone, not just for those who like this activity for its own sake. You should come even if you don't enjoy it."

Also, when a superior says something like "Everyone else is coming in Saturday," that means you should too. Yes, maybe you have better ways to spend your time Saturday. What are the odds that nobody else also had better things to do? The idea is that you should come even if you have things you'd rather do.

Trust me, when someone in a position to affect your life says that they themselves are doing this, or that everyone else is doing that, it's not meant as an amusing bit of trivia. Rather, it's considered a polite and not terribly subtle way of communicating that you'd be well advised to join in. With a smile.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NT Planet: Shooting the Messenger, Part II

Geniferous made an interesting point in response to last week's observation. She said that tone of voice matters too, so if we're unable to use the optimal tone of voice we should explain that in advance.

I certainly hope it would help, though I'm not confident it will fill the gap. Thing is, if words and rational explanations would satisfy the other person, tone of voice wouldn't matter in the first place.

Geniferous is absolutely right: One thing I've learned the hard way is that people - especially (but not only) NTs - are built to respond automatically to certain cues like tones of voices, facial expressions, gestures, etc. Therefore, the absence of those cues must have some effect beyond what words can compensate for.

More broadly, tone of voice can be the exception that proves the rule. With some NTs, you have to use so much sugar coating and soft soap that the bad news is twisted beyond recognition...perhaps even by the recipient. People may miss important information because it's so obscured.

Especially if they're not the most sensitive people in the world but people talk to them as though they were, because those people are afraid of underestimating how sensitive they are and getting ignored, screamed at or worse. Not to mention that all that sugar and soft soap doesn't come free - people have limited amounts of emotional and mental energy, after all.

So, gentle tones of voice and even other things like subtle phrasing, understatements and the like aren't even close to perfect fixes. They carry costs and problems of their own.

The more NTs (and even Aspies) who take bad news personally, the more informational and emotional issues we're going to have, one way or another.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NT Planet: Shooting the Messenger

In this Dilbert strip, the manager makes clear that he doesn't want to receive bad news, and thinks that someone who gives it to him, knowing he would feel upset, must hate him. He certainly wouldn't want such a person working for him.

For us, news is news as long as it's true and relevant, and it's only rational to meet bad news head on. For many NTs (and even some of us), news is also an emotional connection. NTs don't separate facts and feelings as readily as we (tend to) do, and often associate the messenger with the message.

The old saying about killing the messenger who brought bad news wasn't hyperbole - in ancient times, that line of work shortened your life expectancy. (These days, you may "just" worsen or lose, say, a friendship, relationship or job.)

So when communicating negative information, especially to an NT, don't assume it will be obvious that you didn't cause the situation - even if you say it in so many words. Either dress it up to a greater or lesser extent in euphemisms and understatements, and maybe put some positive information before and after it, or know that the other person may become angry with you and treat your news as an attack on them.

(PS: Many more people act this way than realize it. People tend to tell themselves they're much more rational than they really are. Most people "understand" that they shouldn't blame the messenger. Many people do it anyway, for reasons too complex to discuss here...though if anyone asks for elaboration, I'll be glad to do so.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NT Planet: Hope and Change

The famed horror writer Stephen King - under his nom de plume Richard Bachman - wrote several books, including Roadwork...about Barton Dawes' self-destructive spiral. His wife Mary, having left him just days before, agrees to have lunch with him to discuss the next step:

Her hair was braided in a single thick cable that hung down to her shoulder blades, a way he could not recall having seen her wear it (and maybe worn that way for just that reason).

Why would Mary have taken the trouble of wearing her hair in a new way?

People often wear their clothes, jewelry, hair and the like in ways that signal things about themselves. For example, someone in a suit and tie is more likely to have one kind of socioeconomic background, education and career than, say, someone in faded overalls and work boots. Obviously, there are individual exceptions...but it's a good general rule.

And people sometimes signal change through what they wear. If your college buddy had previously gone through like in suits and ties, and then you see him in overalls and work boots, you might wonder if he's become a victim of the recession and been forced to take manual labor to pay the bills. Or - maybe he's just decided to switch careers.

Likewise with hairstyles. Mary could have been saying: "I'm not the same woman who was married to you for 20 years." That in turn can imply: "I've changed in terms of what I will and won't tolerate. You may be able to win me back...if you change your ways."