International Specialisterne Community

Specialisterne Canada

Specialisterne Canada Inc., a charitable not-for-profit Canadian organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

Humans need clarity and transparency – understanding our environments is one of our core social motives. This need can make receiving ambiguous messages from managers and coworkers – “We need to talk” or “Call me ASAP” anxiety-provoking.   To many neurodivergent people, the heightened physiological response or prior trauma can make anxiety caused by the lack of clarity in workplace communication particularly debilitating.

Unfortunately, the scenario below is much too common – but also easily preventable.

Sarah’s Story:

Sarah started the day looking forward to finishing an assignment that challenged her creativity and involved using some fascinating new research. Her commute, however, dampened her spirits –the other commuters seemed angry and impatient, and she could not help hearing someone else listening to news about people becoming homeless because of layoffs. And when near her office building she saw a person holding a cardboard sign “I used to be a top employee, now I can’t pay for food,” she felt a chill going down her spine.

As Sarah tried to calm herself and focus on her work, a notification from her boss popped up “Can we talk?” The words flashed on her screen, devoid of context. Immediately, they turned into a vision of herself, holding the “I used to be a top employee” sign, and she felt nauseous. Was she in trouble? The world and the news were filled with examples of terrifying scenarios. She had no family to fall back on, no safety net – she was the one taking care of her parents.

Heart pounding, Sarah navigated her way through the office, almost tripping over her suddenly unsteady feet. She replayed recent interactions with her boss, searching for clues that might explain the ominous message. Each step felt shakier than the last as she approached her manager’s office.

Knocking tentatively on the door, Sarah braced herself for what lay ahead. Her manager, however, was beaming, saying warmly – “Hi Sarah, come in, have a seat.”

To her surprise, the conversation that followed was a celebration of her recent accomplishments. Her manager commended her on her dedication, creativity, and positive impact on the team, and asked whether she would be interested in participating in a professional development program perfectly aligned with Sarah’s interests.

Back at her desk, Sarah wanted to celebrate, but the emotional rollercoaster left her drained, and she had trouble focusing even on her fun project. She was searching for the joy she should have been feeling, but the flush of fear seemed to have left a physical trace in her body and mind that would take a while to override. Despite the emotional relief, she felt physically unwell for the rest of the day.

The Power of Context:

Most of us probably have stories illustrating the profound impact that context can have on communication. In the absence of clarity, our minds often default to the worst-case scenario fueled by fear and uncertainty. Prior trauma makes us interpret ambiguous situations as terrifying. And these stronger reactions are not just “in our heads” – for many, these reflect very real physiological differences in the intensity of emotion and stress response often associated with neurodivergence. Moreover, many people, neurodivergent or not, will experience a decrease in their ability to handle additional anxiety-provoking situations when dealing with chronic stressors, such as chronic illness or childhood trauma.

Managers and coworkers can make a difference in the stress level of others. Developing a habit of providing context in communication can prevent anxiety that stems from ambiguous messages and the resulting impact on well-being and productivity.

Providing context is an aspect of both emotionally inclusive and trauma-informed communication. And both are necessary for inclusive leadership.

Emotionally Inclusive Communication recognizes that human emotional experience is extremely important to every aspect of life and work. It goes beyond emotionally intelligent communication in respecting emotional experience and emotional diversity and involves approaching emotions—both our own and those of others—in a diversity-affirming manner.

Trauma-Informed Communication acknowledges that people may have experienced trauma or adverse life events that impact their perceptions, reactions, and interactions. It prioritizes safety, clarity, trust, and empowerment, creating an environment where people feel validated and supported.

Here are some tips for Trauma-Informed and Emotionally Inclusive Communication:

  1. Cultivate Perspective-Taking and Consideration:
  • Keep in mind the diversity of human experiences, perspectives, and emotional reactions. Understand that others might react to situations differently than you would. Do your best to empathize with and validate other’s emotions even if you would have reacted differently. Our emotions come from the entirety of our experience.
  • Recognize that neurodivergent people may experience the world differently, and their reactions may be influenced by their unique neurobiology.
  1. Ensure Clarity and Provide Context:
  • Communicate clearly and provide the necessary context, avoiding ambiguous language or assumptions. Do not expect that others will read your mind: clarify the context of all messaging. Simply adding “this is about a professional development opportunity” or even “it’s a good thing” would have made a world of difference in Sarah’s day, and in the experience of many like her.
  1. Get to Know your Team Members by Practicing Inclusive Listening:
  • (Neuro)inclusive listening is based on the awareness of diversity in verbal and non-verbal communication, genuine curiosity, and avoiding judging people based on cultural or neurobiological differences. It provides space for people to express themselves fully and authentically, without fear of invalidation or gaslighting.

In Sum:

Communication devoid of context is easily misinterpreted. Receiving ambiguous communication can be particularly stressful for those who are neurodivergent, and for people who already deal with multiple stressors in life. Adding context to all workplace communication is a powerful tool managers can use to improve clarity and transparency, making work environments both less stressful and more inclusive.