(originally published January 4, 2019, updated June 17, 2020)
You’re reading this article because you’re curious about listening tips for ADHD adults, right? It’s not unusual for adults with ADHD to have challenges communicating clearly and cleanly. If this is one of your challenges, you may have also developed counterproductive patterns of communication over time — habits— that make these challenges even more pronounced.
For example, when you feel misunderstood or you’re not being listened to, you may respond in one of two ways. Sometimes you may decide to shut down out of frustration or because you’re not sure what to say. Alternatively, you may “hammer away” and not allow the other person to speak.
Obviously, neither of these responses contribute to effective communication, right? In fact, these responses may lead to even further misunderstandings and even hard feelings. If you are prone to either talking too little or too much, you can change that.
But, before exploring how you can adopt new habits, it’s important to acknowledge your communication challenges with someone are not all on you to fix. Obviously, the other person may be contributing to the miscommunication. But, since you can’t change other people, it’s easier to focus on what you can do to make your conversations more productive. Makes sense, right?
You can start by choosing to upgrade those skills you feel are falling short of where you’d like them to be. And, since some of your communication challenges are due to your ADHD symptoms, understanding the impact of your ADHD is a good place to start.
Then you can figure out what strategies and tools will help you be more effective in your communication. That’s the focus of this Two-Part Series. In this first part, I’ll explore the often-overlooked part of communication — listening.
Why Do You Want to Be Able to Listen Well?
You already have a general sense that being a good listener is, well, a good thing. True.
But, if this is a challenge for you now, you might guess it will take a fair amount of energy and time to learn how to listen better. So, it will be helpful to first know what’s in it for you — the reward — to give you the motivation to do the hard work of upgrading your listening skills.
A few of the reasons you might want to listen better are you will be able to:
- build trusting and strong relationships. Like you, others are more apt to be invested in building relationships when they feel heard.
- create the right and better solutions. When you can listen to all the stakeholders — family, colleagues, friends, etc. — you can create solutions that have the buy-in needed for the solution to work.
- encourage openness and honesty. People will open up to you more readily when they feel they are being heard.
- feel less stressed and calmer. When you are actively listening you can focus less on trying to figure out what you want to say.
What are your reasons for wanting to become a better listener? Are there other benefits not listed above you may receive if you learn to listen better?
You Think Faster Than People Talk. This Is the Result.
One of the reasons it is so hard to listen is we think faster than we talk. You know this is especially true for ADHD adults, right?! And because people talk slower than you think, according to Professor Ralph G. Nichols, you have spare time for tangential thoughts. Consequently, you may end up getting sidetracked in your thoughts. Sound familiar? 😊
In fact, for ADHD adults this spare time, waiting for the other person to finally get to their point, can feel almost unbearable. So, the conversation between co-workers, Rick and Leslie, may look like this:
Leslie: “So, I think for the 3rd quarter it might be important to focus on the Sparta project.”
Rick: “Right,” you say.
But you’re thinking: What about the Laconia project that we were supposed to do last quarter? Are we just going to give up on that one?
Leslie: “I think it’s important to do this because…”
Rick: “So, we’re going to switch projects,” you say.
And then you’re lost in thought, again: Why do we keep on jumping from project to project. One day something’s a priority and the next day it’s something else. I just can’t keep up and this is really stressing me out.
Leslie: “What do you think?”
Rick: “I’m not sure why we need to switch projects right now. “
Leslie: Not sure how to respond, Leslie is lost in her own thought, Huh, didn’t I just explain that?!
Rick didn’t catch everything Leslie was saying because he became frustrated right away and then was lost in his own thoughts. While you won’t be able to slow down your thought process, of course, you can learn to actively listen. And this active listening can fill the space Nice, right?
How Your ADHD Can Make It Hard to Listen
Sure, everyone can have challenges listening when people talk slower than they think. But your ADHD symptoms may magnify your chances of filling the space with your own thoughts. Some of the reasons for this, which I know you may be aware of already, are challenges:
- blocking out external distractions, such as random noises, conversations, phones ringing, etc.
- tabling internal distractions, which could include thoughts about what the person is saying or totally unrelated thoughts.
- managing emotions, like frustration, anger, or excitement.
- maintaining interest in the content of the conversation.
- monitoring your actions so you do not speak impulsively.
As Professor Ralph G. Nichol, the “father of listening” notes, “The use, or misuse, of this spare thinking time holds the answer to how well a person can concentrate on the spoken word.” To be able to focus better, over the next few weeks, pay attention to the various contexts where you would really like to listen better, but have difficulty actively listening.
Then practice using the strategies below to use your spare time efficiently.
#1 Seek First to Understand
If you’ve read Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” you know his 5th Habit: Seek first understand, then be understood. Even if you’re not familiar with this, I know you’re familiar with the idea. But your ADHD challenges noted above may make it difficult for you to do this in practice. Even though you probably think it’s a good idea in theory
In fact, you may overly focus on getting your point across, rather than actively listening, because of your ADHD related challenges of a weak working memory and emotional regulation. This can be especially true for ADHD adults when you feel misunderstood/not listen to.
Your weak working memory may contribute to this tendency because, in the moment, you don’t have enough room in your working memory to considering both points of view — yours and theirs. So, you focus just on your points. This singular focus may also be due to the frustration and/or anger you feel because of your ADHD challenges with emotional regulation.
It totally makes sense you want to make sure your point is heard. But, if you’re not really hearing/understanding the other person’s perspective, the conversation inevitably goes in circles. And then you may become even more frustrated, right?
Some of the steps you could use to counteract this possibility are:
- Listen for and write down their main points — ideas. Don’t try to keep it them your head.
- If you’re not sure you understand the main points, ask to mirror word for word or paraphrase what they said.
- Withhold coming to any conclusions or asking any questions, unless you’re seeking to clarify until you’re certain you understand the content of what they said.
The bottom line is you want to make sure you understand the ideas the other person is trying to convey.
#2 Ask Clarifying Questions
Along the way to seeking to understand the ideas of the other person, you may need to interrupt and ask clarifying questions. This can be especially helpful when you lose the thread because of distractions — internal (thoughts and feelings) and external.
But, because you may feel embarrassed to let on that you’re not catching everything, you may be reticent to do this. I know. But, the longer you fill the space with thoughts unrelated to the conversation, the harder it will be to catch up, right?
So, while it may be uncomfortable when you first try this, to let the other person know you didn’t catch everything, try using phrases like:
- “That was a lot of information and I want to be sure I understand everything. Are you saying…?”
- “I’m not sure if I got all of that. Could you say that again?”
I think you might also be surprised that most people will be appreciative of your efforts to stay engaged in the conversation, rather than pretending to listen. I don’t know about you, but I can usually tell when someone is not really engaged in our conversation. You’re going to take a mental detour on occasion, for sure.
But, if you’re willing to ask clarifying questions, you can get back in the conversation, sooner rather than later. No harm, no foul.
#3 Be Curious
Another way to actively listen and stay engaged in a conversation is to be curious about the other person’s ideas. Doing this will help mitigate the chances of going down a rabbit hole with your own unrelated thoughts.
Check out how to do this by looking at the following illustration. Notice, instead of filling the space with his own unrelated thoughts, Rick uses the 3 strategies below to maintain his curiosity about Leslie’s ideas. And, instead of being frustrated by Leslie’s slow-talking pace, relative to his thoughts, Rick used his curiosity to stay engaged.
- Trying to imagine where the conversation is going is one way Rick could do this, That’s interesting. I wonder if there is a reason, she thinks we should pivot to the Sparta project now. Maybe there’s a change in the market?
- Another strategy Rick could use is to look for the evidence Leslie is using to support her points, I wonder how she’s going to support changing direction midstream. I’ll be interested to hear what it is. Hopefully, she’ll bring that up.
- Also, Rick could pay attention to nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice) “to see if those add meaning to the spoken words,” That was a long pause when I asked that question. Is she not sure of the answer? I guess I’ll find out.
Curiosity can certainly take up space as you seek out answers to your questions.
#4 It’s Ok to Interrupt to Interrupt Sometimes. Here’s How.
Actively listening doesn’t mean you don’t share your thoughts. In fact, sharing your opinions or observations can be a great way to show you are really engaged. Of course, this is true as long as your contribution is relevant, and you don’t inadvertently monopolize the conversation.
But you may wonder how you can do this, if there isn’t a natural lull in the conversation, right? And you may also think that you can’t interrupt because it is rude to do so. It will take practice. But you can learn how to interrupt graciously. Really. How you choose to interrupt will depend on the context.
So, if you are talking to close family or friends, you may not think anything of it and be able to interject easily. But, in other contexts, such as professional settings or ones where you don’t know the people well, you may find it awkward to interrupt. Especially if the other person doesn’t seem to be inviting your feedback.
One of the strategies to use in situations where you’re not sure if it’s okay to share your thoughts is to ask permission. By doing so you don’t have to worry about appearing impolite. Because you’re asking for the go-ahead before interjecting.
If you haven’t tried this strategy before, you might be surprised at how people respond. In most cases, you’ll find the other person will gladly cede the floor When they feel they have a choice and are not being forced to stop talking. Of course, you should use words that feel authentic to you, but here are a couple of ideas of how to do this:
- “Do you mind if I interrupt for a sec?”
- “I have a thought about that. Do you mind if I share it?”
You get the idea.
#5 Take the Time You Need to Think
Last, sometimes you may find it is best to hold off coming to any definitive conclusions during a conversation, as you may need time to digest. Especially, if it is hard for you to process information on the spot. Also, by delaying your response, you can avoid speaking impulsively, and possibly having regrets later.
But I also know you might not want the other person to think you have no opinion about the topic. To avoid appearing disinterested or confused let them know you want time to think through the ideas. Of course, if you feel comfortable, you could even offer some tentative thoughts. Some ways to say this are:
- I’m not really sure where I’m going to land on this. Here is what I’m thinking now… But I’d like to take some time to think about it before we make any firm decisions. What’s a good time for you to meet next week?
- “We’ve talked about a lot and I’d like to take some time to digest before we make any decisions. Is it OK if we get together next Monday and see where we are then?”
- “I appreciate the conversation, but I need some time to think about it. Do you mind if I give you an answer by next Wednesday?”
Of course, you want to share your opinion. But you also want to respond in a way that feels right to you. And you may not always be able to do this in the moment.
Listening Tips for ADHD Adults – Key Takeaways
Being an active listener can benefit you in several ways. Yet, your ADHD can make it a challenge to listen well. And, in part because of your ADHD, conversations may go sideways.
The good news, though, is you can change this. While it will take a fair amount of practice, you can improve your capacity to actively listen and participate in the give-and-take of conversations by:
- seeking first to understand.
- asking clarifying questions.
- being curious.
- interrupting when necessary.
- taking time to process your thoughts.
What can you try this week to become a better listener?