Can you think of a recent time when you were uncomfortable initiating a conversation or bringing up a subject because you thought there might be some sort disagreement? How did you feel and what did you do?
For most people the answer is, “Well, sure, they are not my favorite kind of conversations, and sometimes I try to avoid them. But they are just part of life…”
But for adults with ADHD the answer may be more along the lines of:
“I try to avoid those at all costs because I just don’t handle conversations where there are a lot of disagreements very well.
Sometimes I just don’t know what to say because the conversation seems like a game of ping-pong. And the ball just falls off the table when it is served to me. So, in those moments, I might not say much, but rather I’ll just go along because I don’t know what to do…
Other times it feels like a battle when I try to make my point. I might try get into the middle of the fray… But I have a hard time articulating what I want to say. At these times I’m afraid I might end up saying something I regret.
I don’t know. These conversations are just really hard…”
What do you do when you either anticipate there might be conflict in a conversation or when you are in the middle of an exchange filled with tension?
Exchange of Ideas or Conflict?
First, a couple of definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary to help get us started:
- A conversation is an informal, usually private, talk in which two or more people exchange thoughts, feelings, or ideas, or in which news or information is given or discussed.
- A conflict is an active disagreement, as between opposing opinions or needs.
When is a conversation simply an exchange of ideas and when is it a conflict?
I don’t think this is an easy question to answer, as it seems the answer is most often dependent on the subjective experience of each person involved. As a result, each person could interpret the same interaction differently.
I’m sure you’ve been there…
At the conclusion of a conversation it is not uncommon for the people involved to come away from it with different perspectives, such as the hypothetical example below:
- Bob: “I’m glad we got all of that on the table. Now we know what everyone is thinking. I think Sally and I have some common ground, too.”
- Sally: “We don’t agree on anything! In fact, the gap between our ideas seems as wide as the Grand Canyon. It is going to be a long road coming to some sort of agreement.”
- Benji: “Wow! It was like a battlefield in there! Every time I brought up an idea Bob shot me down!”
While we don’t know why their experiences were so different, we’re all familiar with conversations where people come away with varying perspectives, like those above.
ADHD and Heightened Feelings of Tension
Of course, there are times when clearly there was an argument. I’m not referring to those situations.
When it comes to adults with ADHD, you may often come away from conversations feeling more like Sally or Benji than Bob. And it is helpful to consider that your ADHD symptoms may be contributing to your heightened sense of tension in interactions where there are”just” differences of opinion.
Being aware of your possible ADHD related challenges, such as those below, can help you create workable strategies to manage them:
- Due to your working memory challenges you may find it hard to retrieve, organize and process information in order to participate effectively in a conversation, especially if it is fast paced.
- Because of challenges with emotional regulation a conversation you are in may start off innocently like, well, a conversation, but devolve fairly quickly into at least what feels like a conflict.
- The back and forth of conversations, especially “passionate” ones, can feel overwhelming for you because there are so many distractions from both your internal thoughts and your surroundings. So, it is hard for you to attend to all facets of the conversation.
It is possible that you may be more likely to interpret an interaction as a conflict because you are feeling overwhelmed and over stimulated due in part to the above ADHD related challenges.
And the other party may see it just an everyday exchange involving different viewpoints.
What Do You Do Now?
When you are feeling so much tension, without the right strategies, you may end up:
- blurting out when a thought comes to mind, even if it is not on point.
- giving up and shutting down.
- talking too much just to get all of the ideas running around in your ideas OUT before someone can interrupt you… and you forget what you wanted to say.
Ultimately, you may get frustrated and angry at what feels like conflict going on around you.
You can change that?
Creating Your Experience In Your Conversations
If you think you might be interpreting discussions as a battlefield in part because of your ADHD challenges and you would like to change your experience in conversations, you can.
1. Begin with the end in mind. So, first, when appropriate and possible, go into the conversation with your objective in mind. That is, do you want to:
- win people over to your side?
- share ideas to find common ground?
- collaborate in order to make a decision by the end of the discussion?
Knowing what you hope to gain from a conversation can help guide you in the conversation.
2. Then, in order to handle what you perceive as conflict better, with more grace, be aware of what happens in your body when you perceive this conflict. Is it a tight stomach, racing mind, elevated heart rate…?
When this feeling arises in the moment, you will be able to say to yourself:
“Uh, oh, I better put the brakes on so I can think about what is really going on for me and decide what to do…”
That is, the feeling in your body is your cue to pause so you have the opportunity to be more intentional, rather than acting impulsively.
3. Next, take a step back, be curious and question your thoughts. Be aware of where you may default to various kinds of cognitive distortions (black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, etc) If you know you may have a tendency to misinterpret situations, ask yourself questions, like:
- Is this really a conflict or is that just how Bob talks?
- Is it possible that Bob is just getting all of his thoughts out, but there is still room for discussion?
- Could it be that we have a common objective, but are just coming at it from different perspectives?
- Other questions?
4. If possible, give yourself permission to listen, take notes and not respond in the moment, but rather seek to understand so you can take the time you need to:
- process the information.
- consult with “trusted advisors,” if necessary.
- respond thoughtfully.
Honor how you operate best.
And that may mean not trusting your first reaction. But giving yourself time to check in with your higher self; the one who will know what to do after thinking it through.
Having More Successful Outcomes
The reality for most of us is that most conversations have a chance of having some element of differences of opinion. That is, of course, we don’t see eye to eye with all the people in our life all the time.
That is life….
But your discussions don’t need to feel like battlefields, if you are aware of your conversational challenges and address them in a way that works for you.