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I’m on the spectrum. Language doesn’t always come as naturally to me as to others. I often have a need to confirm I understand the conversation partner, for which I use active listening techniques like paraphrasing and questioning. I noticed that often neurotypical conversation partners seem to think I am trying to argue instead of understand. I use phrases like “Why do you say that?” Or “If I understand correctly, you mean xxxx” or “why does that make you feel that way?”

Why do active listening techniques not work in casual conversation with many neurotypicals? What can I do instead?

For the record: I am pretty decent at active listening techniques in serious conversations. This is also no issue in conversations with most others on the spectrum.

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    Are you sure that this only occurs in conversations with certain types of people? – DaveG Feb 25 at 1:34
  • @DaveG I've noticed it happens more with neurotypical people and less with fellow autists, and more with people that don't know me well, and only in casual conversations, never in serious ones. I think it has to do with them reading something in my communication that I do not intend. I am not good at the subtleties of language, and prefer to communicate on the factual level rather than appeal side. – Belle Feb 25 at 10:47
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    This is very country-dependent. I've noticed that many citizens of the good old USA habitually do this, not for any alleged psychiatric reasons but just as a form of feedback and confirmation. It's rather like Navy personnel repeating the order they've just received followed by 'Aye'. I'm not a US citizen and we don't do it here but I've got used to it. Here in Australia we have the much worse habit of interrupting each other and finishing each other's sentences. However it drives me wild personally to have people say 'so what you're saying is ...', especially as it almost invariaby isn't. – user207421 Feb 26 at 4:00
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    "I use phrases like “Why do you say that?”" Why? – Acccumulation Feb 27 at 4:54
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I used to have a colleague that was on the spectrum as well, and when I had just met him, he also used questions like these. From my (non-spectrum) perspective, a question like

Why do you say that?

appears to question/doubt what I just said. If I tell you my opinion on something, and you asking me why I say that, it appears to question my opinion, and I will argue why my opinion is X. Which is fine in itself, but it is not what you want to know. The colleague also did not want to argue so he ended up not asking those questions. I understood what he meant, after a while, so then it was not an issue with us anymore, but with new people it happened again.

What I suggested to my coworker was to clarify that he didn't understand completely, and to use a phrase like so:

I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand completely what you mean, could you clarify < x aspect> of what you just said?

This worked better with new people, as it made it clear that he was not questioning or doubting what others said.

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    Adding a "Just curious" to the "Why do you say that" question can make it sound as if it's the intended informational question, instead of a doubtful/argumentative question. YMMV, though. – computercarguy Feb 26 at 22:09
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    This is not realised even by many neurotypical people but the word 'why' often causes defensiveness - it implies they should have a justification ready, otherwise their behaviour is irrational/baseless/requires justification. Instead, use a 'what makes you think that?' or similar workaround. – jMan Feb 27 at 10:58
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    A good phrase I heard recently is, "Can you help me understand < x aspect > ?" It seems to position the speaker as having the power to teach and help the listener, and the listener as actively seeking to learn, instead of putting the speaker on defense. – Neal Feb 28 at 15:17
41

For most people, active listening techniques are going overboard in casual conversation

For most people, casual conversation is casual. Having one person seem to take it too seriously almost forces you to start taking what you thought was casual conversation or even "small talk" seriously as well. That can make the conversation unexpectedly intense.

When unexpected, some active listening techniques sound like challenges.

Active listening techniques can be great when both partners in the conversation understand that they are being employed, or at least both partners understand that this a serious conversation where precision and understanding are important. I'm a lawyer and often use techniques similar to or derived from active listening in a lot of situations including negotiations and client intakes to avoid ambiguity and make sure everything is clear for everyone. But those are situations where the other party has often been to the same classes I have and even the laymen at least know they are serious and formal conversations.

When injected into casual conversation though, some of them can sound like challenges. "Why do you say that?" can be taken as a demand for evidence. On an important topics or where you might even be adversarial to the other party this is reasonable and expected. In casual conversation, it can be taken as the other side challenging my position or at a minimum it can seem like the other side now wants this to be a serious conversation were I am trying to explain in detail both what I just said and my basis for belief. In other words, it could be confrontational and almost always moves me out of casual conversation mode (the exception is when I know I'm dealing with someone who is not neurotypical, see below).

"Why does that make you feel that way?" doesn't quite carry the same confrontational or challenging connotation, but it does take me out of casual conversation. It has either signaled that my conversation partner finds my reaction surprising or that my conversation partner has some reason to want to know the full origin of my emotions and really understand my emotional state. The first makes me introspective and possibly even defensive. The second can be flattering in some cases, but still makes me introspective. Either way it takes me, and I suspect most people, out of casual conversation mode and into serious territory.

Understanding can help prevent the change in conversation mode

As mentioned, I am a lawyer not a psychologist or a communications expert so take this with a grain of salt. However, I deal with several people who employ different conversation strategies than the standard neurotypical American for various reasons. Knowing ahead of time that they have a reason to approach conversations differently will change the way I react to unusual questions and in particular it can make me less likely to take them as a challenge or a deliberate attempt to make a casual conversation serious.

Now, whether that works for you personally of course will vary by how much you want to reveal to your conversation partners as well as how much they understand of your revelation and how accustomed to dealing with other conversational modes they are.

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    I'm also not a psychologist, but a standard "mmm" and nod will often suffice in casual conversation if you're not being prompted for an answer. Good eye contact helps, too, though that may or may not be difficult. As long as you don't appear actively preoccupied (e.g. reading texts), it's not a hard "necessity" or anything. – eurieka Feb 26 at 18:37
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You might get better reactions if you don't include the other person in your question. For example, asking "Does that mean" instead of "Do you mean" when applicable will lower the chances of your interlocutor thinking he explained poorly / said something wrong instead of thinking the concept he was explaining could be difficult to understand.

Instead of using "If I understand correctly, you mean xxxx", you might want to use instead "Is it like xxxx", or "Did it feel like xxxx" [Followed by a comparison that roughly acts like what the other person was talking about]. That way you will become a part of his speech instead of "potentially being an opponent to it".

I don't believe active listening doesn't work in casual conversations, in my opinion you just need to make it look more casual.

This is based on personal experiences (and experiments). I am not on the spectrum, however I am "struck" by a few "disorders" that disable me from enjoying most of casual conversations. For example, I am way more interested in the reasons why something is making me feel something (or making someone else feel something), and the ways how to modify it, than I am interested in which thing makes me feel which emotions, and of course, it makes it difficult for me to understand the core points of most people speeches. Long story short, I ended up being hospitalized for a moment as it impacted me a lot emotionally, and there I met a lot of people, including autistic persons, persons with anger issues,persons struck with paranoia, but also the kind of people with which it is the hardest to get to a healthy mutual understanding : psychiatrists. They wouldn't phrase it that way, but the point was : "If I can't adapt and enter communities, I can't leave." At first, I was just faking it and copied other people body movements and speech manners while discussing with them to look friendly. But after some time, I figured out I could adapt my ways and reasons to discuss with others to fit (partly) inside one (or multiple over time) casual conversation(s).

What I feel like I learnt is that all that matters at first is to take what people want to give the way they want to give it, and to give what people want the way they want to take it. It is hard at first because you don't know each other, but the more you talk, the more you can safely talk about yourself. The more you do so, the more what you'll want will become the other one talking about itself the way he wants to talk about it.

When you ask me what "I" meant by something I said, I will have to explain myself, which is incredibly harder than explaining something I said if you ask me what "this" thing I said means. In both case, I'll need to explain feelings about it, but in the second case, there will be room for an impersonal wall between me and my explanations.

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The active listening techniques might be too direct for most people not within the spectrum. I'm on the spectrum myself and I indeed see through this directness or don't even notice it (or care about it).

I think I get where you're coming from, you're not trying to question them as a person but just want clarification on the words/opinion that they stated or are just interested in the subject. I've been in these situations myself where I had to explain that all I wanted was more information or clarity but it's easy to misunderstand each other.

The thing is that most people link themselves directly to these words/opinions. Even more so if it's a subject that they are passionate about. So when you question their words with the questions you have stated you leave them room for interpretation where these questions are coming from. Now as it goes for me, and I believe most people on the spectrum, I don't show much enthusiasm when I ask these questions. So people tend to interpret it as "Have you thought this through?" or "Is your assumption correct?". Which is not my intention but it comes across as such.

Your last question is even more difficult because it's about emotions and these cannot always be explained rationally/factionally.

As suggested by JeroendeK, the best way I've found around this in similar situations is to take "blame" yourself first. Do not directly "confront" someone with their words but let them know you don't understand and need further information to be able to comprehend their way of thinking. And this has something to do with you not them. This way you give them less room to make these questions about themselves, but more about you and the information you're missing.

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It does

It's not an autism vs. neurotypical thing

While there may be tendencies and preferences that make it somewhat more or less likely for certain kinds of people, still, it is not like autistic people get it and others do not.

If you have a certain type of conversational methodology, or if you value correctness or understanding, then you may be more inclined to be accepting of another person's active listening. This is true no matter what the source of your conversation style or other preferences, whether the source is influenced by autism or not.

If you are impatient, or if you value moving onward and forward more than correctness or understanding, then you may be more inclined to not accept another person's active listening. Again, true no matter the source of your qualities, whether due to impatience, uncaring attitude, history of stroke, or whatever.

Remember that the population is not simply "autistic or not-autistic". Someone could be considered not "on the spectrum," as you say, yet still not be neurotypical. And neurotypical isn't really a type of person anyway, as there are plenty of conditions, mental and otherwise, which someone may have and still be called neurotypical by you.

I know of one individual who frequently just does not care what your opinion or understanding of the matter is, one of the worst offenders of what you describe. This person only started behaving this way after a stroke.

It's not entirely a casual vs. formal conversation thing either

Again, casual/formal may be an influencer, but it's not that simple. I know plenty of people who act exactly as you describe even in formal settings.

As a blatant example, on one project I worked on with many safety-critical components (ie: Peoples lives depended on it working correct), one of the lead engineers constantly did not want to answer clarifying questions or to iron out ambiguities in project requirements. I frequently had the type of exchange with this person that you describe, and it led to very high workplace tension. That should have been a very formal conversation.

In another example, slightly less formal but with a more dramatic result with a different employer: "Bob" was known to me for being ambiguous. Frequently clarifying questions were met with hostility, including him making formal complaints multiple times. I once asked why he was following "Alice's" orders when "Cindy" would not approve, to which he replied "Uh, I kind of have to since Alice is my boss." I said "Oh! I didn't realize that. I've worked with you for years, and all this time I actually thought you worked for Cindy. Never mind what I asked a minute ago, sorry about that." Bob was upset that I "questioned Alice's authority" on the matter, and that was the wording he used to explain the situation to Alice. Bob tried to get me fired multiple times, nearly succeeded in this "questioning someone's authority" case.

I have noticed that some of these types of people that fit into your description get bogged down in "loaded terms." That is, a word or term that has a certain definition, but which society treats as special. Like in my previous example, to "question someone's authority" is something that sounds awful. See section "appendix" at bottom for more details.

If it's not autism/neurotypical or casual/formal, then what is it?

That I cannot answer well except to say I think it is influenced by many variables and you would need to figure it out on a case-by-case basis per person. However, that's often not very feasible or necessary. Unless it's someone extremely close to you and you think you can play troubleshooter and improve your lot with a diagnosis, it's best to just let the "why" part of this go.

So how do I respond?

Common conversational tactics, such as avoiding personal pronouns

Some of the common conversational advise that can help you in general could help you here too. Some of it others have already provided, such as laying off the personal pronouns, eg: "Why is it done that way?" instead of "Why do you do it that way?"

While general conversational advise like this can be helpful against some people, it will not always work. I have tried many things to get along better with many different people of the type you describe, both in my personal and professional life.

Some thing work with some people, some other things work with other people. If you want to be the bigger person, you can try trial and error. That's what I do.

Avoid unnecessary questions

For truly casual conversations though, you also need to ask yourself if the clarification really matters. Often it does not.

I sprained my ankle after dodging a bicyclist yesterday when jogging past the school.

Oh, which school, the one on 1st street or the one on 2nd?

This is not the best example, but it suffices. "Which school" is mostly irrelevant. You might be interested, but if the other person is the type to take offense to such a question, then you might as well just not ask since it is not required to further the conversation.

Take the blame even if you know it's not your fault (Has negative side effects)

For times when the information is important for continuing the conversation, I tried for a long time to just state things in a way where I was taking the blame, like so...

Meet me at the school on the other side of town at 5.

Which school, the one on 1st street or the one on 2nd?

I don't know which street it's on. The one by the pizza place.

I didn't realize there was a pizza place near either of them. Sorry I'm being dense, but I don't want to end up at the wrong place and leave you hanging: is it the one that...

Some people get annoyed even at this, but usually they respond better to this. This has had negative side effects though. People with even slight bully tendencies find it easier to latch on to my perceived negative traits and ridicule them. Also, if I keep portraying the problem as if it's all with me, eventually some people think it actually is and change how they treat me.

For example, at work, if I keep taking the blame for things ("Sorry, I must be misunderstanding your system again. Can you help me get it through my thick skull what this part that you didn't mention does?") the other person sometimes assumes I am not capable of doing the work when in fact the problem is the other person's inability to make a coherent system or provide documentation.

Balance it all out

So it's a huge balancing game. Do I take the blame this time and risk looking dumb, or do I not take it and risk the other person getting overly defensive even though I carefully worded my request to not point blame?

These people make conversation difficult for people like us, because we have to constantly weigh our options and decide if every statement is worth saying. It gets exhausting.

If you choose to take on this burden, take notice of the fact that it does not imply you are at fault for anything. It just means you are taking an honorable effort to improve conversational quality, which sometimes may mean you're compensating for the other person's problems.

Sometimes you're wasting your time on a lost cause

For some people, nothing works. Some people just are not civil, so nothing you do will work for them. Sometimes this is because they are a bully, or are arrogant, prideful, or impatient, think they are being funny by their negativity, or have other reasons. It is often difficult to figure out if nothing will work with a person, but if you come to that determination then you have no choice but to either avoid communicating with that person or to just stop caring what their reaction is to your communications.

The answer is not always the same, even for the same conversation partner

People are complicated. Sometimes a person might be fine with your active listening one minute but not the next, or be fine with it when talking about cats but not dogs, or depending on their mood or location or who else is present in the conversation... the list goes on.

What works today might not work tomorrow. So there is also an element of trying to read the other person and decide on your response based on your guesses of their current condition. If someone is in a huge hurry or if you're talking about something that needs to be done immediately right now if not yesterday, then maybe any line of questioning is a waste of time no matter how crucial it may seem to you.

Again, this goes back to balancing it all out. Unfortunately, in your attempt to be better at communicating that means you need to pretend to be a mind reader.

Don't expect help from the other person

Sometimes people are open to meta-conversations to improve communication. But I have found that if I say "I'm just trying to clarify this ambiguous point" (most people are already ticked off or staring blankly already by that point) and manage to keep the person's attention through that point, it's been rare to go past that into "No, this point is ambiguous because... and is important to understand because..." without having people get pissed off or write you off as a waste of their time, no matter how correct you may be.

So don't expect help from the other person unless you know them well and trust them to be reasonable.

Also at this point it's often worth going back to "Is this question really important enough?" and double and triple think on that. Sometimes a question is important, but not so important it's worth alienating people over. At that point I tend to be convinced the communication breakdown is their fault, but don't tell them that!

Summary

The "why does this happen?" part is often not worth considering, except in specific situations, so don't bother with it most of the time.

The "how do I compensate?" is complicated. Read up on conversation tactics, abandon questions that aren't important enough, and recognize that everyone is different, and even the same person will be different over time, so keep adjusting to compensate.

For unreasonable people that just cannot communicate nicely, either don't talk to them or accept their nonsense.

Appendix

I thought more details might help you to understand that I was not understating the previous example.

In my second case above, it was awful enough that HR had a formal meeting with me, my manager's manager, and a union representative, for doing it. They were so upset that I dared to question a manager's authority that they didn't want to hear my response, they wanted only to scold me.

When I said "With all due respect, I don't know what he told you, but he must have distorted things because I was completely confused at first, though now I think I understand what you're talking about. Can I tell you what happened?" they actually said "No, he has complained about you enough times that we decided you must be doing something wrong and we don't want your side. We just want your word that you will behave better and professionally." Yes, that was the response, no joke.

I responded by telling them what happened anyway, despite their objections, and I insisted that I would not be behaving better or more professionally, but not because I was refusing to be good or respectful, that rather it was because I had behaved admirably, respectably, and completely professionally, and that they had it all wrong and were wasting their time, followed by "I'm not being insubordinate, I'm just stating the fact that I cannot be more professional than completely professional."

I must have said something right, because it didn't end up in my official file, my boss' boss did his own investigation after hearing me (before I said my peace, he said he wasn't going to), and he told me later that he decided Bob was grossly exaggerating everything.

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From my personal observation people hear emphasis on different words than you might want.
Due to methods in Western Culture people hear accusation.

Here a video of Kim Kardashian asking the same question
And she says all the additional things that people hear in such questions: expected knowledge on how person feel, accusation that statement prior to question hurt the person. It's not about the statement itself but lack of filter to stop yourself from saying it. IMHO it happen more with females than males.

So you need to ask question that are not similar in that but would give you expected outcome. So try asking

What made you come to that conclusions/statement. What make you think that way.

That way it's more clear you ask about what is behind what person said rather than asking about why they opened their mouth.

“If I understand correctly, you mean xxxx”

This sentence works only if you understand correctly and with 100% accuracy. Otherwise person will think THEY said something wrong so they will back up. OR they will not admit that you didn't understand (because that would require "attacking" you) so they will change to accomodate with what you said you understood.

NOTE: we are not talking here about people who say "No, what I meant was....". AS those situations are not what OP have in mind.

To avoid it you can drop "If I understand correctly". That way person have a chance to embelish on what they said and fill the gaps they can now see. They don't have to correct YOU understanding. They can correct themself. Try to convey the information in different way.

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It feels like all of the answers here so far have touched on the reason, but not really focused on it.

People who frequently engage in active listening with other people who are used to active listening tend to get lazy about how they phrase things. The other person knows them and knows they're not trying some rhetoric techniques to imply the other person's position is less than perfect. Chances are good, there's an awareness that the other person is on spectrum, so their idea of a tactful disagreement will be painfully very direct.

The quickest, most direct way to ask these questions just happens match a popular technique used in debates to reduce the audience confidence in the prior speaker's position. It's a mainstay of adversarial dialog. If you're having a conversation in public and you don't care at all about what the other person is saying, but you want to make them look bad, the easiest approach is to ask them to explain themselves. It doesn't require you know anything about their subject matter, and even if they're right, asking for an explanation on the wrong thing can be devastating. Sometimes that's because the explanation is too long, other times it's because the details are prone to being controversial.

Taking offense at these questions isn't a neurotypical only thing. Anyone who isn't familiar with active listening techniques or doesn't recognize these questions as being that will most likely be offended, regardless of how on spectrum they are.

As the others have said, one of the best ways to avoid that reaction is to avoid saying "you" in your question. Or you say "you" in a complementary manner.

That sounds interesting. I'm not very versed in this, so I have to assume you're right. But I would like to understand more about why it's like that.

Novice-friendly active listening techniques in my experience tend to be wordier than the ones we use when we're around people we trust to trust us. At least for me, they tend to be much more varied and situation dependent. (For example, if I were to use the quote I just made with one of my immediate coworkers, regardless of how true it is, they'd suspect I was trying to butter them up, because I have much more technical experience than they do. I know this because nobody can know everything and there are areas where they are much more experienced than me, so I have used it.)

It's possible to sometimes get away with having a neutral you in your active query:

I think there are many different ways you could have meant what you just said, could you explain it a bit more?

However, I've had mixed results with this. They've certainly been better than the direct "Why do you say that?" But I've had people accuse me of accusing them of being confusing and accuse me of trying to be difficult. Usually I can defuse those accusations if I can list a half dozen ways that one could take what they said that they can accept as plausible. But it's better to not fuse the situation in the first place.


I'm on the spectrum, and I've been fairly focused on learning how to communicate better for over 40 years. I never learned to not talk with strangers, so I've gotten quite a bit of experience over the years. I've been active listening in conversations for so long I'd forgotten until this post that it's called active listening.

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0

There's another facet to casual conversations, which is that they're often not really about the topic being conversed, but are rather being used as part of a social protocol, performing signaling and community-bonding functions. If I'm engaged in such a protocol and respond outside the protocol, it can be confusing and off-putting, as the neurotypical person subconsciously attempts to discern intent and social purpose behind your atypical response. As other have mentioned here, "why do you say that?" can sound confrontational, which then makes people wonder "why are they using that confrontational language?"

For me, I find it helpful to model and categorize conversations based on their social function, as that then helps narrow down the set of expected responses that fit the protocol. For casual conversations, it ranges from nearly meaningless small talk (such as talking about the weather), which requires very little engagement, to something a bit more dynamic based on trading anecdotes/stories, combined with asking questions about eachother. The latter is a bit more involved and can be modeled as a sort of game where people share more or less detail based on their friendship 'level' and whether they want to improve or reduce that bond. Usually here you still wouldn't ask people to clarify, as this isn't about sharing information, but rather about signaling familiarity and desired social bond progression.

In general, I'd say that questions like "why do you say that?" fits more into conversations meant to convey information, which are often a relatively small subset of human interaction. It can be useful among friends too, especially if they're aware you're on the spectrum, as a way to get them to clarify joking or sarcasm, if necessary.

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