Many neurodivergent (ND) adults struggle with social conversations. Life would be so much simpler if people would just say what they mean and mean what they say, rather than assuming that everyone is privy to their secret social rules of conversation. It’s easy to become frustrated when you are so often misunderstood, or accused of being rude when that was never your intention.
There are four ideas that may smooth the way when you must engage in face-to-face social conversations with your neurotypical friends, family, and colleagues: F.A.C.E. Conversation Strategies. F.A.C.E. stands for Follow Back, Ask Back, Conversation Police, and End Well.
F is for Follow Back.
Sometimes a conversation bounces around from topic to topic. Neurotypical people seem to have a much shorter “wave length” of talking vs. pausing for someone else to jump in. It’s like trying to run in to double jump ropes that are already turning, timing it just right to get in there at just the right moment so you can jump rather than getting hit by the ropes. Neurotypical conversational “jump ropes” are turning much faster than most NDs are comfortable with. You may be looking for a much wider opening, or longer pause, before you feel confident to insert your comment into the conversation. What if you miss the moment, and the talk turns to different topics? Is your opportunity lost forever?
No, not necessarily. If you wanted to say something about Topic A, and now everyone is talking about Topic B, it may not be too late to make your point. Of course, if you jump right in with your Topic A comment smack dab in the middle of their Topic B conversation, it can be awkward. It might even bring the conversation to a full stop while people try to process what you just said. Don’t worry, though. Even if the conversation has turned to other matters, all is not lost. You can still bring the conversation back around and say your piece. You just want to do it in a way that the others can follow you back instead of getting lost in the weeds.
The first thing to do if you want your conversational partners to follow you back to the previous topic is to wait for a pause or lull in the conversation. I know, this sounds easier than it is when you have a bunch of typical talkers hitting the conversational ball around at top speed. Eventually, though, you should see your opening.
Now insert a brief script to let them know you’re returning to Topic A. It might be something along the lines of, “Something you said earlier reminded me…” or “Getting back to (Topic A), I had another thought about that…” Now you’ve got their attention and you’ve telegraphed your intention to return to an earlier discussion. They should be able to follow you back with no difficulty. Chances are whatever you had to say was worth it, and you’ll be glad you did. They will probably be glad you did, too.
While it is often fine to bring the conversation back to a previous topic, however, sometimes it’s not welcome. There are three specific situations to look out for to avoid using the Follow Back strategy:
- If the previous topic was an intense interest of yours, a topic that you’re an expert in, and you had been dominating the conversation by lecturing or sharing your expertise, don’t go back at this time. If someone changed the subject to something more of them were interested in, they might not be open to following you back to your personal passion. That doesn’t mean you should always squelch your interests, and there will be another time to talk about your favorite things, but learning to read the room can help you avoid awkwardness. If reading the room is not your strength, just assume that if the previous topic was your absolute favorite thing to talk about, and someone changed the conversational focus, they are probably ready to move on to other topics, and you can try to follow them this time instead of asking them to follow you back.
- Another reason not to try to return to a previous topic is if the topic had been uncomfortable or disturbing. If you had all been talking about politics, religion, a tragedy in the news, or something sad or upsetting, people might want to shake off those feelings and talk about lighter, less intense things. The fact that someone changed the topic away from one of these issues means they probably don’t want to keep talking about the uncomfortable thing. Let it go.
- A third reason not to try to turn a conversation back is if everyone seems to be extremely interested in the new topic and the conversation is rolling happily along. How can you tell? Look to see if people are smiling broadly, gesturing with their hands more than usual, leaning in towards each other, laughing, and almost tumbling over one another (conversationally) to get their points in. These are signs that the people chatting are really into the new topic. It’s not a good idea to interrupt a lively, free-flowing conversation to return to a past topic, or it can feel like a wet blanket has been thrown over the group.
Other than these three situations, when you see a pause in a conversation that has moved on, and you want to put in your thoughts from the previous topic, go for it. Your people can follow you back.
A is for Ask Back.
It is not at all unusual for neurodivergent (ND) adults to experience challenges when it comes to social conversations. It can be frustrating when neurotypical (NT) people misunderstand your intentions and accuse you of being rude, when in fact rudeness was the furthest thing from your mind. Figuring out how to avoid these misunderstandings can sometimes be simple, once someone points out how the ND mind works, and what their expectations are for “typical” conversations.
It can help to try to get inside the NT’s head to see where they’re coming from. I know, you have probably spent your lifetime trying to figure out the illogical puzzle that is NT. It would be great if they spent as much time trying to look at the world through the ND’s eyes, and that is a good world goal to aim for. In the meantime, here is a hint about how many typical minds work which may be helpful.
Sometimes an NT will have some exciting news they want to share at work. Maybe they just booked a vacation cruise they’ve been saving for. Maybe they scored concert tickets for their favorite band this weekend. Whatever it is, they are dying to tell everyone in the office all about it.
No matter how anxious they are to start spreading the news, though, many NTs feel that it would be rude of them to just jump right in and start talking about themselves and their plans. They believe it is more polite to first ask someone else about their vacation or weekend plans, to let the other person talk first. Their expectation is that after talking about their plans, the other person would immediately return the question and ask them about their vacation or weekend plans, giving them the opportunity to share their exciting news.
Many ND folk come to work for the express purpose of working, not socializing. They have learned, though, that if someone asks them a question, the polite thing to do is to answer the question. Consider this scenario.
NT comes in to work excitedly one morning and asks, “So, do you have any vacation plans?” ND pauses their work to reply, “No, I prefer a quiet ‘stay-cation’ at home.” Question asked, question answered. Now that ND has fulfilled the obligation to politely answer a question, they return to their work.
Unfortunately, NT was all set to answer the same question themselves with their own exciting vacation plans, and now they feel left hanging. They expected to get the same question batted back to them, and when it didn’t come, they had some feelings. They might think ND is rude, or self-centered, or uncaring. They may even grumble and talk about ND behind their back, causing workplace drama, the very last thing ND wants.
Now, this may seem manipulative and self-centered of the NT, as if they are trying to set you up to give them center stage, but usually this is not their intention. It doesn’t make sense in any logical way, but many NTs have been programmed since early childhood to believe this is the polite way to share their news. They do it naturally without even thinking about why they start with a question. But when they don’t get the opportunity to answer the same question themselves, they may feel wronged or slighted.
Obviously, the solution is simple. When someone asks you a question, after your own answer, (as brief as you want to make it,) just return the same question back to them. Ask it back, and they will have the pleasure of sharing their own news. I should note that not all NTs are the same, any more than all NDs are. They are a divergent lot in spite of their typical-ness, and not all of them expect this particular conversation routine. But for the many who do, it may help you to be aware of what their expectations might be when they ask a social question. If you decide to ask back their original question, even though it takes a bit more time out of your work day, your NT colleague will feel probably better.
Let’s be clear, though. It is not your job to try to make anyone else “feel better.” NT’s feelings are not your responsibility. There’s no written rule against continuing with your work rather than engaging in the ask back routine. It’s your choice, but at least knowing where they might be coming from makes it an informed choice.
C is for Conversation Police.
Have you ever been excitedly talking about your favorite subject, only to look around and realize that the people you’re talking to don’t seem to share your enthusiasm? You’re definitely not alone in this experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Someone has to be the most excited person in the room, so why shouldn’t it be you?
When you’re hanging out with your friends and family, I hope that you feel comfortable sharing your passions in whatever way feels right to you. They probably find your enthusiasm charming and delightful. Your passions are part of who you are, and the way you share your excitement in your interests may be one of their favorite things about you.
But sometimes you may want to curb your enthusiasm temporarily. Maybe you need to meet your sweetheart’s family for the first time, or go to a company holiday party and mingle with your bosses and colleagues. As they get to know you I hope you will become more and more comfortable being your true, unmasked self around them. Still, it’s understandable if you want to take it slow for a first meeting or an important workplace event.
If you must attend a social affair or meet new people and you are concerned that you might get carried away over-sharing, consider enlisting a trusted partner to be your “Conversation Police” for the occasion. This could be your spouse, partner, best friend, sibling, parent, or anyone you trust, but it should be someone who knows you well and values you as you are.
Their job will be to provide a subtle nonverbal cue when it appears you are talking too much about a topic. This could be tugging at their earlobe, or tapping their closed lips, or whatever you two decide will get the point across.
When you see the cue, have a simple script ready for turning over the conversation to someone else, along the lines of, “Enough about me (or my topic of interest). What’s new with you (or your topic of interest)?”
It’s important that you and your Conversation Police understand that this is not an open-ended invitation to be used any time they think you’re talking too much. You decide when you want this kind of feedback, and once the party’s over, so is their job. “Conversation Police” is not a full time position. Only you get to determine whether and when you want this kind of feedback.
In all the rest of your life, I hope you find your people, the ones you feel comfortable being around without masking. You know who they are, the ones you can share your excitement with, and get excited with them when they share their interests with you. There are so many, many things to be passionate about in this universe. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (and queens.) Enjoy!
E is for END WELL.
Have you ever been in a group conversation, when you suddenly realize you need to leave? Maybe you remember another appointment. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the subject being discussed. Or maybe you’re just bored. The reason doesn’t matter, but now you really want to go.
How do you bow out gracefully?
If you just walk away while someone is talking, they’ll think you’re rude. Maybe you don’t want to let on that you’re bored, and risk hurting someone’s feelings. At the same time, you don’t want to spend the rest of the day listening to these people talk about the weather, or current events, or their personal drama.
So what do you do?
It’s time to END WELL: Extricate, Nonverbal, Direct, Wave, Escape, Leave, Let it go. Here’s the strategy, spelled out.
Extricate yourself with a pre-planned script. When there is a break in the conversation, insert a simple sentence like, “It’s great to see you guys, but I have to get going. See you later!” You don’t need to explain yourself, and you don’t need to lie, but that doesn’t mean that you should hurt people’s feelings by telling them how boring they are, either. If it was not great to see them and you will not see them later, simply say, “I’ve got to go. Later!” If they ask why you need to leave, don’t make up an imaginary appointment, but give them a vague, general response along the lines of, “I have to get home and take care of some things,” or “I need to get back to work,” or “I’ve got a to-do list I need to start taking care of,” or any statement that is true for you. Create this simple script for yourself in advance, so you can readily speak your truth without hurting people’s feelings, using your own language and communication style.
Nonverbal cues, such as looking at your watch or a nearby clock, help deliver the message that your time with them is drawing to an end. Don’t try to put on an exaggerated expression of surprise, as in, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how late it has gotten!!!” It is very difficult for anyone to pull that off. Just glance at the time. Smiling while giving your exit script is another nonverbal way to telegraph the message that no rudeness is intended, you just need to go. If you can’t get a word in to use your verbal script, then you can go straight from checking the time to making your way out. You could nod to the group as you leave if it feels comfortable to you, but if nodding feels awkward, skip it and go on to the next step.
Direct your face toward the other people before you leave, to let them know you’re thinking about them and not just wandering away aimlessly. This is important when you’re delivering your exit script; it shouldn’t be tossed over your shoulder on your way out. You don’t need to actually make eye contact if you’re not comfortable with that, but orienting yourself so your face, shoulders, and feet are pointing toward others before you turn to go is a good way to show that you have been attending to their conversation, and that you care.
Wave as you leave, a universal friendly nonverbal gesture. Hold your hand at about shoulder height, palm out, and give no more than 1 or 2 shakes of the hand in the air, while smiling in the group’s general direction before you turn away. If you were never able to find an opening in the conversation big enough to insert your exit line, then the combination of your nonverbal cue of looking at your watch, directing yourself toward the groups and then nodding and waving before you turn to leave will deliver the message.
Escape. Ease your way out if you are in a large group, especially if it’s difficult to find your way to the exit through a crowd. Check to make sure you are not walking between two people who are talking to each other as you go, and then make your escape.
Leave. Just walk away. Go directly to the exit or your car or start walking home or wherever you plan to go next. Go there now. No need to linger, you already said your good-byes.
Let it go. After you leave, you may remember something you said or did that seemed awkward to you. Maybe someone could have misunderstood your intended meaning. Should you go back and tell them what you meant? Should you text or email later to apologize for your awkwardness? NO. Do not do this. Just let it go. Everyone says awkward things sometimes. It’s a very human thing to do. Assume that by now they have forgotten all about it, if they even noticed it in the first place. If you bring it up again, it will only point it out to them if they missed it, and everything will be much more awkward. Just let it go. If the idea keeps popping into your mind, decline the invitation to obsess on it. I know this is easier said than done, but believe me, trying to go back into the conversation and over-explain yourself will not help. If you feel something about the conversation was not as successful as you might wish, then plan to do better next time. We all earn from our mistakes. Every day may offer a new conversation opportunity, and the more you join in to these conversations, the more skilled and comfortable you will be.
Whether or not these F.A.C.E. Conversation Strategies are right for you, I hope they’ve at least given you an idea or two that may make your future face-to-face conversations easier to navigate.