One of the best things about my role at my business is that I have the opportunity to engage with a handful of neurodiverse people in trauma informed support sessions. These sessions are usually 1-2 hours and can include a variety of doings depending on the person’s process. These people and engagements are by far my greatest teachers, mentors, deep moments and real human connections. I learn so much from humans who have been strongly marginalized, tested and disempowered. I learn how they rise, and who they are.
I have had the great pleasure of supporting a man in a weekly session for about four years now. Every week, without fail we have coffee and we talk. To give you an idea, that’s about 208 (plus) cups of coffee and 208 conversations. In this time, we have been able to get to know each other well within the context of our therapeutic relationship.
The other day he was explaining to me that he went to see a grief counsellor as he had lost an important person in his life. I asked him, “How did it go?” He looked at me shook his head and said, “not good Kim, not good.” Of course, as I am curious and gentle, I say, “Tell me a little about that”. He says clearly without hesitation: “She doesn’t KNOW me.”
For him, this is everything. He is telling me in his complex way of communicating that this person has no intimate knowledge of who he is as a human, does not understand his nuances, doesn’t know his history and isn’t part of his future as far as he can see. He, like all of us, want to be KNOWN.
I’ve had the benefit of over 208 cups of coffee, and an additional 208 hours of phone calls or zooms (I engage with him twice a week). This is sufficient time for him to know, that I KNOW.
When we run up against hard conversations at work things can get uncomfortable really fast. Often, as supervisors, managers and leaders it is our job to have those conversations. We have all been in the room with a person we are trying to talk to and they respond blankly with, “yup”, “whatever”, “ya” and we have a very sinking feeling that this is not going well – at all. Or as soon as they are in the room with us, they become aggressive, triggered and loud.
During these hard moments do we consider that the person may be in a state of dysregulation or shut down due to a brain difference, due to something we just don’t KNOW about? As a neurodiverse person myself I understand that I am more focused, on point and creative when my sensory system is well supported. My leadership team understands this too and they are attentive to my needs – they know me.
How do we take small steps to better KNOW each other at work? How do we alert our colleagues, coworkers and employees that there is room for knowing each other in our workplaces? It does require a level of vulnerability and really good boundaries.
In sessions with my neurodiverse clients, we have a bit more room to roam into personal knowing and processing non-work situations. On our work sites (even if they are hybrid) we have to be more considerate of our professional necessities but, I would argue we can still know each other deeply in order to support each other professionally.
When this knowing, relationship-building and understanding is present those hard conversations feel less edgy. Knowing each other well means that if we do come up against an edge we can co-create a growing edge, instead of hurting each other. Knowing each other is a beautiful form of kindness and will make our jobs a lot calmer. Here are some thoughts on how we can get to know each other better, differently:
- Make space, create time
When it’s possible have an open-door policy or establish ways your co-workers can share their support needs at work. Observe your space – are there places for quiet professional conversation that is outside of an office (break room? Picnic table in the courtyard?)? Does your organization encourage training and self-development on work time? Do you offer team building opportunities where people can get to know each other? How else could you be creative in this area at your workspace?
- Slow down
Work is busy and we are moving really fast to get things done. Can you add something to your “to do” list: take a moment to genuinely ask someone you are supervising how they are doing at work, and if there is anything you can offer to support them?
How can you build in moments of pause to connect with another human being; especially if it is one you are responsible for supervising and giving feedback? How can you connect with this person BEFORE there is an issue or a conflict? What do you have in common? When is the right time to connect issuing an authentic compliment or praise? Considering these things will help you slow down, pause and scaffold the relationship with knowing.
- Think outside the box or toss the box completely
How YOU show up as a leader needs to be authentic if your ultimate objective is genuine knowing. As you get to know yourself you will be able to identify where you can “think outside the box” with a creative modification/accommodation. You can also determine if there are times when the “box” needs to go – because it doesn’t fit who you are at all. When you bravely take on getting to know people as your most authentic self, you will know the freedom of a genuine relationship and from there access the power to shift and change within that relationship.
The man I have seen 208 times for coffee did not want to go back to the grief counsellor. I told him I understood completely that she did not know him …. yet. We had a good long conversation about what it takes to get to know someone and comprehend who they are and he agreed with the list we created:
- Second chances
It’s true, we all need time and maybe even a second chance. We don’t always get this right on the first try – and if there is a neurodiversity involved, that impacts social or communication functioning, we might need even more support. We really are all in this together.
I asked my incredibly insightful client what it means when someone knows him? He replies: “They know me.” And that is enough. My eyes well up with tears as I understand his meaning. Sometimes the “knowing” is not at all intellectual, it is a felt sense in the body that equals safety, connection and calm.
I look at him right in the eyes and say, “I know.”