Communication problems are common when you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD tends to make it harder to get things done, as it weakens your executive functions. This lowers your ability to remember things, gather your thoughts, and control your impulses. These barriers often get in the way of how you speak and listen to other people, too.
The good news is, new techniques and habits can help you get your points across – while making sure your listeners are heard, too.
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, says Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, PA.
There are ways you can keep this from happening, though.
- 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.
“If you’re not sure what was said, ask,” Tuckman says. “You also might paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you’re clear on it.”
- Try to maintain eye contact. This helps you be an active listener. If your mind drifts, repeat the speaker (in your head) to keep a bead on the conversation. Don’t interrupt.
- Ask questions. Instead of jumping into what you want to talk about next, ask the speaker a question about what they’ve been sharing. This helps you stay engaged – and they’ll know you’re listening.
Try to Pick Up on the Subtext
Good communication requires more than trading verbal info. It’s key to pick up on how the person you’re speaking with is feeling and what they really mean, beyond their words. Grasping the context of the conversation not only gives you needed info, but your communication partner will value it.
- 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?
- Zero in on how the speaker uses their words. You can’t always take them at face value. “OK, I guess” has a different meaning than, “That sounds great.”
- Bone up on 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 someone is merely being polite or if they really mean what they say.
- Watch their actions. They might be at odds with their words. This is when it can help to ask them to clarify.
Get Rid of Distractions
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.
- If your kids are running around, or co-workers are chatting in the hall, the best solution might be to suggest having the conversation in a quieter place. Say, for example, “I can’t give this my full attention now. Can we talk later?”
In a meeting, don’t rely on memory. Take notes with pen and paper or an electronic tool. Let co-workers know this is your go-to organization method. “In general, whatever it is that you do, show the other person you’re making the effort and that you’re taking it seriously,” Tuckman says. “If you’re working hard, people are much more likely to be forgiving.”
- At the end of the meeting, ask for an opportunity to summarize the key points you’ve jotted to make sure you’ve got things right.
- Later, or if you still have questions, ask a co-worker to send you a quick email with their own recap.
Keep a Handle on Your Emotions
People with ADHD can have a hard time keeping the reins on their emotions, even as adults. Impulsive outbursts are communication destroyers, though. Keeping 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.
Make Others Your Allies
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 non-ADHD person has to accept that a different set of approaches might be needed to communicate successfully with you, says Tuckman. Tell them they have your permission to grab back 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. They might touch your hand or wait until your eyes are on them to be sure you’re looking at them.
- Counseling or therapy not only can help sharpen both your and your partner’s communication skills, it’ll help you both under each other better.
“I think it’s important for folks with ADHD and their friends and loved ones to understand” ADHD and the challenges that come with it, Tuckman says. “The more you know, the better off you’re going to be.”