Welcome back! I’m so glad you are joining me for this new blog series about Social Skills in the Workplace. We’re going to start with one of the most frequent concerns I hear about: reading facial expressions! This can seem tricky, but I am going to address some of the main concerns you might have in today’s post.
Facial Expressions in the Workplace
If you have Asperger’s or are neurodiverse, you might have heard others tell you that your face looks angry or confused. But, you felt fine. This can be confusing feedback.
You might have been at work, and a colleague questioned if you understood what they were saying because you looked confused. But you understood. Sometimes a disconnect can happen in what’s going on inside and outside for people on the autism spectrum. Because their facial expressions, or lack of facial expressions, can be misread.
Most people want to understand what you’re thinking and what you mean. They do this by listening to your words, but also by trying to “read” your facial expressions. In fact, neurotypical people, without realizing it, are reading facial expressions and microexpressions (facial expressions that happen in less than 0.5 seconds). For example, the crow’s feet appearing during a smile is a signal that the smile is genuine. People will tend to read a smile as fake if the crow’s feet don’t appear at the corners of your eyes.
The facial expression of “puzzled focus” indicates the person does not understand something but is trying hard to understand it. Puzzled focus includes furrowed eyebrows and squinting of eyes. If you naturally make these expressions while listening to someone or something (it’s your default face), people may think you are confused. It’s these sorts of misunderstandings that can lead people in the workplace to misunderstand you.
You might have been told that you always look angry. Similar to the facial expression of puzzled focus, angry facial expressions include furrowed eyebrows and squinting eyes, along with clenched teeth. Confusion and anger are relatively similar in terms of facial expressions. So, you can imagine that if your face defaults to these expressions, people might misinterpret you as being angry or confused when you’re fine.
Strengthen Your Workplace Relationships With These Social Skills
When people’s facial expressions are hard to read, others find this unsettling and off-putting. It leads them to feel distrusting toward that person. Therefore, you can see how colleagues might feel uncomfortable opening up to you if they can’t read your face. They may struggle to collaborate with you if they feel like your facial expressions are hard to read.
Tips to Reduce Confusion Around Your Facial Expressions
Let’s say you are listening to your manager describe a new project. She says, “Do you understand? You look confused”. However, you actually do understand the project requirements, but what can you do to clarify this with her?
- Thank them & Ask open-ended questions to better understand their perspective. It can be easy to feel defensive when someone misinterprets you. You may even feel offended, annoyed, or confused. There is also value in understanding what it was about your behavior they misunderstood. Trying to understand their perspective can help reduce future misunderstandings.
- First, thank them for the feedback. Even if it is hard to receive the feedback at first, remember this is useful information that can make future interactions go smoothly and reduce miscommunications. Thanking them will reduce their own defensive in the situation, and increase the chances they will be able to have a fruitful conversation with you to resolve the misunderstanding.
- Second, ask an open-ended question to understand what behaviors they saw you do that led them to misunderstand you. For example, “What was I doing that made you think I was confused?”
- You want to understand what behaviors they saw that contributed to the misunderstanding. If they say, “well, your face looked confused.” That is helpful for you to know, but it would be even more helpful to get specifics about the facial expression they saw. You could ask a follow-up question like, “Could you tell me more about the facial expression you noticed?” They might answer, “Well, your eyebrows were scrunched up.”
- Give a “mini-disclosure”. A mini-disclosure is like an explanation or qualification for your behavior. A mini-disclosure consists of the following 3 key parts:
- Identify the behavior
- For example, you might say: “Sometimes my eyebrows furrow and my eyes squint as you’re talking about new projects.”
- Clarify what the behavior actually means
- That is my “thinking face”. It does not mean I am confused.
- Share what you value about that interaction
- I care about having clear communication with you as my manager, so I just wanted to share that about myself.
- Identify the behavior
Thanks for reading my blog. I hope you enjoyed learning more about how to navigate social interactions in the workplace and how facial expressions play a huge role in your interactions with your colleagues. If you liked this blog and feel like it applies to you or someone you know, I would love for you to be a part of our community at Open Doors Therapy. Here are three easy ways to stay connected:
- Contact Open Doors Therapy and schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation.
- Connect with me on Facebook for another way to stay informed.
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Other Autism Services at Open Doors Therapy
My Palo Alto/Bay Area mental health clinic serves individuals with autistic traits. This includes individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. I am proud to offer individual counseling, parent counseling, and group therapy for the Silicon Valley area and beyond. Additionally, our therapists offer support and educational groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. To learn more about any of these services, contact our office and schedule a free consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, CA. She specializes in social skills groups for neurodiverse adults and teens on the autism spectrum.