Saturday, May 16, 2009

Conversational Effort: An Incident

This post is quite a long and rambling one... my apologies.

I haven't been the most supportive husband of late due mainly to two separate incidents, both of which are worth blogging about.

I'll cover one incident in this post and hopefully by the time I do my next post, I'll have my head around the second.

Talk is Difficult
If you read most articles which cover aspie diagnostic criteria, you'll find mention of the difficulties of smalltalk. You could be forgiven for thinking that this means that aspies are hopeless at discussing off-topic things like the weather (except for the surprisingly large number for whom this is a special interest).

You might also assume that aspies would be fine when talking on the job or about their special interests. That a computer aspie like myself could talk to lots of people for hours about computers - so long as nobody mentions "the weather". Similarly, you could assume that discussions with your partner on topics such as your children, what you did today or family financial matters are simple.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every conversation drains us. True, some are worse than others but all contribute to "drainage".

Setting the Scene
So here was my problem. Most people who know me would probably describe me as "perfectionist" and a "workaholic". I have very little capacity to say "no" to anyone and when additional work is dumped on me, I don't complain.

Furthermore, I set very high standards and I demand (of myself) a consistent and high quality of work. When someone working for me turns something in which is below par, I'll often ask them to make some changes and still feel underwhelmed. I've long since given up expecting other people to meet my standards and often I find myself modifying or doing a "ground-up" rewrite of submitted work. I remember doing group work at university and being so displeased with my colleagues work that I included their 20 page submissions as an appendix in my 300 page work. We all got an "A+" but I don't think they were too pleased with the way their work was treated. I couldn't help it.

I guess this is the reason why in the last twelve months, I've gone from being a technical consultant on a couple of big projects worth half a million to wearing a variety of hats including "business analyst", "project manager", "coder", "data analyst" and "tester". I've always been used to long hours and my working week has been in excess of 50 hours for the past 15 years - of late it's been even longer.

At work, I'd have my hands full with this project alone but since I'm an IT manager, systems administrator, developer, troubleshooter and strategist for a complex system used by 3800 people at 950 institutions, it constitutes only a small part of my daily work.

All this was one of the reasons why I'd just spent two days hopping from one meeting to another while simultaneously dealing with a constant stream of people wandering in and out of my office. I was "talked out"

I got on the bus for my 90 minute (45 when the traffic is good) journey home and I was too tired to do my usual trick of listening to audio books on the blackberry while playing games on it (that's right, my idea of "relaxation" is pretty intense. This time, I tried to relax normally but my bus driver kept alternately stomping on the accelerator and brake and I had to hold on tight just to stay on my seat. Needless to say, I was very tired by the time I got home.

Welcome Home
Now my wife is a stay-at-home mum with her own share of problems. If it isn't enough trouble getting two aspie boys ready for school (sometimes against their will), helping them with their homework when they get home and preventing the from attacking eachother across the dinner table, we've had a lot of other things going on in our lives.

For a start, a close friend of ours had recently died unexpectedly at 43, within a couple of days of my godfather's death and I'd not exactly been full of empathy (this will be the subject of my next post).

In addition, we've been installing a pool and the workers had been at her all day with questions and misunderstandings. She's been busy running around trying to get comparable quotations for various types of fencing, concrete surrounds and electrical and plumbing installations.

I staggered into the house, said hello, got changed and sat down, my energy reserves depleted. At this point, what I needed most was "alone-time" to recouperate but being married with children, I've mostly had to accept that
none is forthcoming.

I turned the TV on so that I'd have something "blaring" to occupy myself with. I don't actually watch much TV because the perfectionist in me can't handle not watching anything (a) from the start, and (b) not interrupted by commercials. I only watched Star Trek - The Next Generation for the first time last year - because I systematically hired the DVDs one per week and watched them in exact order. I'm still frustrated that the shop had one missing DVD.

It's rare that I find anything on TV worth watching but I can usually handle silly things like Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and Funniest Home Videos because their "stories" don't last more than 15 minutes and mostly don't take much intelligence to follow. Jerry was on, so I started watching it.

My wife came into the room and watched for about five minutes then got bored and started talking to me about her day. I usually try to give my wife quality time when she seeks it because obviously if she needs to talk to me, it must be important. The show was running an advert but probably only had five minutes left.

When the show started again, it was calling me. I'd already watched about ten minutes and it was up to the last five of a particular segment. Stopping at the end of a segment means a "clean break" while failing to complete it would mean that it hadn't been worthwhile watching the first ten minutes. My wife was aware that I liked the show and that I hadn't seen it for a couple of years but she continued talking. Obviously that means that her information is "more important".

Now when I'm listening to someone - and this is true for most "reformed" aspies, I need to pay very close attention to detail. Facial expressions and tone don't come naturally and neither does decent facial/eye contact. It's a struggle to remember everything that "normal" people are supposed to do in conversations while simultaneously trying to reinterpret every single line for "hidden" meanings, emotions that I'm supposed to empathise with etc. It's even more difficult when you're deaf and there's a significant amount of lip-reading involved as well as hard work trying to screen out the screaming, jumping and constantly moving activities of my kids who were wandering in and out of the room.

After a little while though, when I realised that my wife was actually recounting every single detail of her day, the various quotations and sizes and textures of concrete, descriptions of fences, discussions with tradespeople (he said, then I said...) etc, I started to lose contact and drift off. After all, I was really tired. She noticed my attention wandering and got quite upset (understandably). Telling me that I'd rather watch Jerry than listen to her, she stormed off and didn't want to talk to me for the rest of the night. I turned Jerry off (no, I didn't watch the rest), made myself dinner (it was a "make your own" night) and went to bed early.

It's true that at the time, I did have an almost overwhelming urge to "complete the task" (Jerry) but at the same time my reserves were completely drained. Over the past two days, I'd found myself "drifting off twice during technical meetings" and it had taken a lot of effort to get back on track. Home is one of the few places I feel like I should be able to "be myself". Unfortunately, that means that I'm less disciplined in social graces at home.

There are a few things to take away from this. I can't expect my wife to change automatically, since she was mostly unaware of my uncommunicated feelings and had a lot of important information to tell me. It's all up to me to change.

On my part;
  • When I've had a draining day like that, I need to find a way to safely and sensitively ask my wife to postpone discussions until after dinner. Dinner gives you more energy to go on.

  • If a discussion starts to get technical to the point where I'm having trouble following it. I need to find a way to safely and sensitively halt it and move it to a more appropriate place. Say, the dinner table, with no TV and after the kids are in bed.

  • If I'm watching a TV show with only five minutes to go, I need to make sure that I communicate that fact to my wife when she starts talking. Again, somehow I need to get this into an empathatic and sensitive form.
I guess my real problem here is how to redirect conversations without offending. It isn't a problem at work because I never redirect conversations there - I'm a "slave" to my fellow employees. Conversations are usually more formal at work too. If someone wants to talk to me about something in a lot of detail, they often arrange a meeting in advance - it's free from distraction, I know in advance and I've had time to prepare.

Unfortunately, thus far, I don't have any answers to provide. I've never been successful at redirecting conversations at home and each and every time I try, I offend.


MaLanie said...

Great post, I will have to share this with my husband. I know he has days like this as well.

I think it helps to be completely present, not that I always am. However, when I am in the moment not thinking about the future or the past (how hard my day was). I can focus on what is most important in that very moment.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I'd really like to offer some salient advice, but I'm not very good at redirecting conversations either!

I must say I do admire the fact that you have a wife AND children. I simply could not cope with kids. After I've been out in social situations, I HAVE TO come home and be by myself for quite awhile. My wife understands this and takes no offense (though this wasn't true when we were first married). I just can't imagine having the responsibility for parenting.

Damo said...

Dude, yer not alone. Whilst I am a social blunder this is what I am picking up. Yer venting in a world that you have greater vocabulary power. Now I know from your earlier posts that you have a signal for a future question when your wife raises a point and you bunny hop (the finger raise). Could you not develop a system/signal whereby you get your decompression time and then have devoted time. She should understand this because she should (in theory) understand that when you talk to her you are coming without baggage and shall not wander/bunny hop.
From my understandings/readings she needed validation and to talk about her day. She is decompressing. girls talk stuff out, guys internalise. Its a male/female brain thing. The male brain is cause and effectual. If its broke then fix it. don't sook about it. But for girls its different. They need to talk to get consensus that its broke. It doesn't make sense to us mere males but its a girl rule.

So in summary, think of it as a meeting of the minds. half way each way......

Rachel said...

Hi Gavin,

I very much identify with needing to finish something before I can stop and listen to my husband. It's not just that I like to complete things. It's that I have difficulty with transitions, and can't switch my (hyper-)focus quickly from one thing to another. Plus, I can't possibly do two things at once, like watch TV and talk to someone.

I keep remembering that no matter how sensitive and loving and kind my husband is, he doesn't know all the little quirks that have to do with having AS. It will always be an education for him. So when he comes upstairs and I'm writing, and he starts talking to me, I say, in a very calm voice, "Give me 5/10/15 minutes, and then you'll have my full attention." Then, after the fact, I'll remind him that being interrupted is very jarring to my Aspie nervous system.

It also helps to say, "You've done nothing wrong, I'm not upset with you" whenever possible. We Aspies aren't the only ones who take things personally. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ok this might sound a little ridiculous ,but i strongly suggest you try using IM or some other form of written but real time communication,while both of you are in separate rooms...I've tried this and somehow it doesn't have the draining effect of normal conversations at the same time you can communicate effectively and avoid drifting because text is easy to follow..especially when its on a computer screen.

Gavin Bollard said...

Actually Rachel,

That doesn't sound like a bad idea at all and I'll see if I can give it a go. My wife often uses Google Chat to ask me questions at work because in my job, I'm constantly interrupted by people coming in and out of the room, or on the phone.

Talking via chat means that I can give due consideration to the words before replying. It also means that I don't have to hurry her up, cut her short or get panicked whenever it appears that someone is waiting to talk to me.

We have our best discussions via chat.

I'm not sure how she'd react to the suggestion that we use it at home though. Probably not well as she's a slow typist.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't assume that your wife knew (or at least realized) that this was a show you liked and hadn't watched in several years. Nor, would she know you had a bad day or the extent of how bad a day you had without you telling her. Even if you say it wrong, I think what's important is to make the effort to communicate what is going on with you - whatever that is - and also, as you were saying that she may have had a bad day too - not so much that you say it just right, but ask her about her point of view. That chat thing seems like a good idea - but even though it is draining - sometimes you just need to make the effort to do the face to face.

Gavin Bollard said...

I know that the way it played out was wrong and I know that we do need to talk about things.

I guess the big problem is that when someone really needs to say something, then whatever you do to put them off (however temporarily) will be considered offensive.

modabid al-Adel Hassan said...

I think it is important to realize that small talk is just filling the air with noise - that is its purpose. It does not need to actually mean anything. It is not a NeuroTypical test.

We are supposed to be good at figuring out systems. Small talk is a system. Comment - Response. Simple. Nobody really cares. Make up stuff. Experiment. Have fun with it. Save your stress for something that truly matters.

As for eye contact, I give them a choice: They can either have me look at them, or they can have me hear what they say. I can't do both, especially if the conversation gets technical, paints a scene or has instructions in it.

Eye contact is just so intimate. It is not a surface involvement.

"There was infinity in her eyes and no back to her head."

That's what it feels like for me.

Lisa said...

I'd like to make a small comment here. I'm married to someone with Aspergers, I'm the NT( we have 3 children - we had 4 but one passed away recently). On reading your post I was really surprised to see you looking at what you could have done to have the situation work out a little better and not examining what your wife could have changed also.
I think in situations like this it's definitely something that both people need to be aware of and negotiate.

You're right about the redirecting conversation, but maybe also your wife could have been aware that you were trying to see the last 5 mins of a show.
It seems to me that either a simple " Honey I really need to talk to you, can you turn the TV off" from your wife would have conveyed to you that what she wanted to say was really not able to wait.
Or from you " I'd really like to watch the last 5 mins of this show, then could we sit somewhere a little less distraction free so I can focus on what you have to say to me, I'd really like to listen.
Speaking sensitively and honestly is often the best way around these types of situations. Expressing one's needs in an honest and sensitive manner is not something that only people with AS have to work on :)