Sometimes it can feel like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) hijacks your conversations. Maybe you interrupt people without thinking about it. Or you don’t pay close attention and miss important details, like where you’re supposed to meet friends.
People with ADHD often have issues with "executive function," which is kind of like your brain’s manager. It’s responsible for sorting through the information in everyday life, like organizing your thoughts in the middle of a fast-paced conversation.
You can do a few things to address some of the common communication problems ADHD can cause.
Talking Too Much
Maybe you sometimes hog the conversation, especially if you’re passionate about the topic. You probably don’t realize you’re doing it – but it can be annoying to others.
Solution: Ask questions. Train yourself to ask questions after you say a couple of sentences to let the other person have their say, too. Silently repeat what’s said to you to keep your focus on listening rather than talking.
You may not remember what you were going to say or what someone else said during important conversations.
ADHD can cause you to easily get distracted or be forgetful. It can be easy to “zone out” when you’re talking to someone. For example, you might answer a question without realizing you missed a key bit of info that might have changed your response,
Solution: Take notes. Jot things down ahead of time so you remember what to say or ask. During the talk, take notes or ask the other person if it’s OK to use your phone to record the conversation.
Solution: Ask for a recap. If you lose the conversation thread, say, “I think I spaced out. Can you say that again?” It’s much easier than trying to dig for the lost info later. Or paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you understood.
You may do this because you’re afraid of forgetting something important you want to say, but other people may think you’re rude.
Solution: Be aware of how much you do it. Count how many times you interrupt in a meeting or in a normal conversation. Set a goal not to do it more than a certain number of times. Other things to try:
- If you feel like you’re overwhelmed during a conversation, breathe in slowly and fully exhale.
- Mentally rehearse not interrupting
- If you catch yourself interrupting, own up to it. Say, “I’m sorry to interrupt. What were you going to say?”
Finding the Right Words
The words you want to say are in your brain, but you can’t drag them out of your mind’s filing system. Sometimes you may simply choose the wrong word. That can cause misunderstandings.
Solution: Talk later. Take a few deep breaths and try to organize your thoughts. If the right words don’t come to you, get back to the person later. If you’re not sure they understood what you said, ask them to repeat back what they heard.
You’re talking to your dad and sister about your son’s stellar report card. You notice a sports car out your front window, and suddenly you’re talking about your dream car. Your dad and sister are confused by your sudden shift in topic.
Solution: Use a “secret code.” Ask a close friend or partner to signal you so you’ll know if you stray from the topic of the conversation. This might be something subtle like tapping on your foot.
You may get distracted and, before you know it, you’re not listening. Even if it’s just for a minute, you can miss important information or the point of the conversation. Others may think you’re bored or purposely not listening.
When someone’s trying to speak to you, try to minimize other things competing for your attention. For example:
- Don’t look at your phone. You might put it in your pocket, purse, or otherwise tuck it out of sight.
- Get rid of unneeded tech alerts.
- Suggest having the conversation in a quieter place. Say, for example, “I can’t give this my full attention now. Can we talk later?”
Solution: Make eye contact. This can keep you focused on the discussion and help you read nonverbal communication cues like facial expressions. It helps you to be an active listener. Try to have conversations in quiet places that are free of distractions.
Impulsivity When Emotional
People with ADHD can have a hard time keeping the reins on their emotions, even as adults. Impulsive outbursts are communication destroyers, though. Keep certain things in mind before you go into a tricky conversation:
- Wait until things simmer down before trying to discuss an explosive subject.
- Prepare to listen more than you speak. Repeat what you hear so you – and they – know you understand.
- Don’t let your own ideas and feelings color your interpretation.
- Be positive. You want to improve the situation, not vent. Choose your words with care. Ban these: “your fault,” “bad,” “always,” and “never.”
Don’t blame or accuse.
- Think about starting a mindfulness meditation practice if having a calm conversation is a challenge. It can improve your focus while dialing down impulsive tendencies.
Not Feeling Understood
It can be hard for a person who doesn’t have ADHD to understand the hurdles ADHD presents. Help them help you by sharing these insights:
The person who doesn't have ADHD will need to learn that they may need to use a different set of approaches to communicate successfully with you
Solution: Tell the person you're talking to that they have your permission to nudge your attention if you've “wandered off.” For example, suggest they say your name again and bring you back to the matter at hand. Ask them to make sure they have your attention before they start speaking, too.
If it happens in your personal relationships, counseling or therapy can boost your and your partner’s communication skills so you both understand each other better.
Listening in Groups
Shifting your focus from speaker to speaker can be a challenge. You might not feel like you fit in and feel anxious. You may avoid social gatherings like parties altogether.
Solution: Practice. Ask two or three good friends to help you practice listening and talking in a group setting. As you get more confident, add more people.
Perhaps ADHD makes it hard to process long chunks of conversation. For example, long talks over coffee may not be the best setting for you.
Solution: Set yourself up for success. Suggest an activity where conversations happen in shorter chunks. Maybe go shoe shopping or jog together.
Missing the Subtext
Good communication requires more than trading verbal info. It also involves noticing how the person you’re speaking with is feeling and what they really mean, beyond their words. Grasping the context of the conversation gives you needed info, and your communication partner will value it.
Solution: Discuss things in person, not via email or text. Eye contact – or the lack of it – and physical gestures can matter much more than what someone is saying. Scout for clues that can help you get more information. Where’s the conversation taking place? Is it a casual setting, a formal one, a meal with your partner? Who else is around?
Solution: Zero in on how the speaker uses their words and their tone of voice. “OK, I guess” has a different meaning than, “That sounds great.”
Solution: Heed their body language. Notice how the speaker sounds, how they’re acting, their expression, and any other details that might provide more insight into the real message. It can also help you figure out if you think someone means what they say.
Solution: Ask for clarification if you are getting mixed messages or aren't sure you understand.