The alternative title for this post is “Personal Accessibility 101.”
This is about how to make yourself more accessible to people who have invisible challenges (or full-blown disabilities), who may function well in an environment they have some control over, but would need to expend an excessive amount of energy in an environment that is not well-suited to their needs. This is about creating a communication and social interactions paradigm that is sustainable and adds energy, instead of being draining and challenging.
“The things about people that drive us crazy, are the things that are keeping them sane.” – Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles in their book, On Becoming a Counselor.
Here are some examples of very different needs:
- Some people need an answer now, while others need time to think.
- Some can’t focus if there’s a scent in the room, while others burn incense to calm themselves.
- Some need to talk through everything, while others need quiet to think.
- Some need a precise schedule, while others need the safety of not being in trouble if they are late.
- Some can have a bagel for breakfast, while others can’t function unless they are eating paleo.
- Some are noise-proof or want music, while others live in ear plugs and noise-canceling headphones.
- Some need commitment, while others need the flexibility to be able to cancel at the last minute.
- Some can sleep anywhere or go with less sleep, while others need to sleep in their own beds and feel horrible if they are short on sleep.
- Some thrive on being social, while others need a lot of time alone.
- Some are early risers, while others are night owls.
Some of the divisions above may resonate strongly with you and others may be less of a big deal. Some may be intimately familiar, and others entirely foreign. Often when there is a miscommunication about these sorts of needs, people are uncomfortable even though, objectively, nobody has done anything wrong.
Even when we accept everyone for who they are, and even when we accept that there are many acceptable ways of being, there is still a lot of finesse that has to go into navigating differences that can push comfort zones and sometimes push boundaries.
Acquaintances hide traits from each other for which they have been judged harshly in the past. One of the main driving forces behind miscommunication of needs is a deep-seated belief that in order to be liked one has to be close enough to “normal.”
The problem is that normal is only possible if you are a setting on the dryer.
Basically, as long as individuals stay in hiding, people will keep brushing up against the sore points that they do not know about. The corollary to that is that even when people do know about individual needs, they will not always be able to fit them. The goal here is understanding and communication, not to always be able to have an optimal scenario for either party, let alone both.
This here elephant would perform much better with an elephant sized keyboard:
Here are some specific techniques for smother communication around needs and accommodations:
- Avoid judgment: Try not to place judgement on either way being better or worse. Remember that other people’s habits are what keeps them sane, and that their needs are as valid as yours. For the purpose of this exercise, all needs are valid.
- Assume you don’t know: Learn to solicit other people’s preferences. Ask about needs and preferences as much as possible and talk about it even when everything is ok, such as when a related topic comes up in conversation. People’s needs are incredibly varied, and one would be unlikely to guess at some of the combinations if they have never seen them before.
- Lead with curiosity: When people share, learn to ask why people do things differently, rather than trying to push them into what you believe is the right way. Accept that people usually know themselves best, and don’t try to argue or talk them out of their needs. Treating needs as negotiation points has a better than even chance of talking people out of being comfortable around you.
- Ask open-ended questions: In these, it is equally easy to say no, yes, or some other option. Avoid questions which presumptively railroad the outcome or command statements as much as possible. “Would 5:00 work?” is better than “Meet me at 5:00.” Better still: “What time would work for you?” Even better, “When will work for you? If today works, I’m thinking around 5:00. Totally cool if not.” Another example: “Would you like to stay the night, or do you need to get on the road this evening?” Is much better than, “it’s late, you should stay here.” What is crucial here is to accept the response and, if possible, help the person address their need.
- Communicate ahead of time: Be open about your needs, and let the other person know if something might be challenging for you. Logistics should happen ahead of time as much as possible. Pre-negotiate what time an interaction starts and ends, and stick to it. You can always make it longer next time if both parties want that to happen. At times what people feel they want in the heat of the social is not what they need to function later, and it is easier to think it through ahead of time.
- Use reflective listening: Tell the person what you think you heard, and what you think it meant. For example, “When you say it is warm in here, do you mean that you’d like me to open a window?” The response may be “yes, thank you,” or “no, I really like the warmth!”.
- Respect their communication: Especially when you don’t like it. Do not make it weird to say no to you or let you down. This means not pouting, or being passive aggressive or trying to talk people out of their boundaries. If something is a real problem for you, address it later–not when the other person is trying to get on top of their needs. (Even later it may not be their problem to fix.)
- Match requests to capabilities: Play to people’s strengths whenever possible. If you need somebody to help you move your fridge, you ask the friend who works in construction and is good at lifting heavy objects, not the friend with a bad back who may feel bad about not being able to help you out. The same goes for mental and personality-based capabilities, too. If you need somebody to help you with a big data entry project, ask a friend who is good at sitting still for long periods of time, not the friend who needs to move around to be comfortable.
- Keep your options and expectations open: Work on accepting that a person may turn down a friendly overture because it does not work for them, even though they like you. Accept that sometimes the best answer is to back off attempts to get closer with people who have incompatible needs. This doesn’t even mean not liking each other. Somebody who works the night shift is unlikely to form a close bond with somebody who is cheerfully up at 5 every morning, no matter how much they like each other. All of the needs listed above (and many that aren’t) have the potential to work the same way.
- Make responsive decisions about future interactions: If you can find a way of being interactive where everyone is ok, keep doing so. Sometime you do this by picking the activities that work. Often the person to go biking with is not the person to write a book with. The person who feeds your cat when you are away may not be open to washing your car. Someone with whom you really enjoy talking at a social gathering may not be the person who will have regular sleepovers with you. Sometimes many different roles converge into an amazing close friendship and support network. That is shiny, but there is also a lot of social value in weak ties and in relationships that do not work in all contexts.
Especially in adulthood, there are many different types of friendships and relationships. Keeping the dynamics flexible and responsive allows a wider range of people to get along with you, in a way that works for everyone.
On a more personal note:
Fragility, defensiveness and being closed to sharing one’s needs and vulnerabilities makes this all harder. I am probably likely to do any of these at times, but being closed is my biggest current challenge. People cannot respond to my needs if I do not share them, and I tend to not share unless asked—as long as I can manage halfway decently without accommodations.
While I may be willing to do something that is stressful to me in order to accommodate somebody else, the other person needs to know what is happening. They need to know that even though what we are doing works *perfectly* for them, it is a stretch for me and it is costing me something to do it that way. Otherwise, all they know is that our interaction worked fine.
For the sake of transparency and communication, I will share my preferences about some of the examples above and I would love to hear yours in comments.
Here are mine (I am anything but simple, even to me):
- I can give a hasty wrong answer quickly, but I need time to check in with myself to give an answer that works for me. I need to talk through everything, and sometimes I need to write things out.
- 4-8 hours of social interaction a day is a lot for me. It’s best if it happens between 2 pm and 10 pm. I really prefer the rest as parallel play or downtime. I like being near people, but not if I can’t control the input or if I am in charge of making it go right. I am unlikely to want to be super-social 2 days running, unless there is a specific multi-people event.
- While I might like a goal of a precise schedule, I really need the safety of not being in trouble if late. I need specific commitments, and I need for everyone to be able to cancel at the last minute without negative consequences.
- My food is every 4 hours and made of protein and greens, otherwise I am Not Ok. Caffeine and water are not optional.
- When sitting in the car or in a sit-down meeting for over an hour a day, I am probably taking 3 ibuprofen every 4 hours, and again that night.
- I can’t focus if there’s a foreign or strong scent in the room, but like some very specific scents. I need noise-canceling headphones with an audio book when doing chores, when sleeping or working complete silence. Noise I can’t get away from or mute freaks me out relatively quickly. My clothing has to be clean and matched to the temperature.
- I NEED 8-9 hours of sleep, and I sleep very very badly in unfamiliar environments. Hotels are ok, because they are familiar, but sharing a room with most people is not. It takes me 2 hours to ramp down, or up at times. Sufficient sleep is the number one way that I avoid pain and emotional meltdowns.
- I have to walk or exercise for at least 40 minutes, everyday before 2 pm, or I can’t focus or be happy.
What are your needs? There is some merit to doing this as a writing exercise in the “Book of You,” even if you don’t share it in comments. The better you know where you are, the easier it is to communicate needs and boundaries.