(originally published June 17, 2020, updated November 14, 2022 )
I know you have read and so know quite a bit about communication, including how to listen better. Yet, despite having all this information, you may still be struggling to implement it in a way that helps you communicate the way you want.
So now you are wondering, “Am I just unable to listen and communicate well?!” That may be the case right now. But, if you are struggling to implement the advice you’ve accumulated over the years, it’s likely, at least in part, because you haven’t customized it to fit your unique needs, including those related to your ADHD.
Here is the good news! You can change that. So, you can communicate the way you want, including listening better.
Why Do You Want to Listen Better?
It won’t be easy, and you will invest a fair amount of time and energy on this journey. You might even experience frustration along the way. But knowing why you want to upgrade your skills will help you persist when it is difficult.
Wanting to become a better listener because it is, well, a good thing will not be enough to motivate your ADHD brain. You will need to identify the value for you to be able to persist in doing the hard work. What are your reasons for wanting to learn how to listen better?
While I am sure you may have other reasons, some reasons you might want to listen better are 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 listen to all the stakeholders — family, colleagues, friends, etc. — you can find solutions that have the needed buy-in.
- encourage openness and honesty. People who feel heard and seen will open up to you more readily.
- feel less stressed and calmer. Because you can focus less on trying to figure out what you want to say during the conversation.
- reduce misunderstandings from mishearing or misinterpreting what others say.
be more productive because you will more often take the right steps when you hear the information correctly.
What are your reasons for wanting to become a better listener?
It’s Not All On You!
I know you are ready to explore the strategies. Bear with me for one more detour. Because I know ADHD adults too often assume they bear all the fault when they’re not listening well in a conversation. And that is just not true. On some level, you already know that.
Yet, you will need to remember in each context where you have control and where you don’t. Because even after you upgrade your skills, you will still have communication challenges. Sure, modeling effective communication might impact how others communicate with you.
But you can’t depend on this. Because there will be times where you are speaking with people who, for one reason or another, aren’t able to communicate productively. And, so, the conversation may go awry. But not because you didn’t try!
Remember, you can only work on owning your part in the communication. And learning how to upgrade those skills where you feel you are falling short of where you’d like them to be.
#1 Prepare to Manage Distractions
I know distractions are tops on your list of how your ADHD may get in the way of being able to listen. And preparing in advance of the conversation can help you manage these.
Sometimes you may be distracted by thoughts of how you want to respond. Reviewing any materials, including the agenda and notes from related conversations, in advance can minimize the chances of this happening. So you can avoid worrying about being caught on the spot.
Then again, the distractions may be because you are uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, cold, etc. I know the advice to prepare in advance is obvious. But, as upfront thinking is not a strong suit for ADHD adults, you may not think of what you need until you are in the middle of a conversation. And wishing you had brought a sweater.
Other times the distractions may be from thoughts of whatever you were doing just before the conversation. Since transitions are difficult for ADHD adults, to minimize this, give yourself enough buffer time, which might include:
- using the last 5 to 10 minutes to take notes and wrap up your previous activity.
- giving yourself time, 10 to 15 minutes, in between activities.
- doing a breathing exercise. One of my clients uses this triangle breathing exercise between each activity.
- reminding yourself at the beginning of the conversation, “I am doing this and not that, I am doing this and not that, I am doing this and not that.”
What will you do to prepare and be present in your conversations?
#2 Acknowledge You Think Faster Than People Talk
One of the reasons staying engaged in a conversation is such a challenge is you think faster than others talk. As a result, according to the father of listening, Professor Ralph Nichol, you may get sidetracked – distracted – because you have spare time for tangential thoughts.
Lots of time! 😉
While this is true for everyone, this spare time can feel interminable for ADHD adults. In part, because, as Dr. Ned Hallowell notes, ADHD adults have race car brains with bicycle brakes. That is, your brain is not getting the stimulation it craves. So that listening feels almost unbearable when the speech feels so slowwww.
One of the ways to minimize this discomfort is to use active listening techniques to fill in the empty space. This will stimulate your brain, help you stay engaged in the conversation, and make your brakes more effective. So, you can listen better.
#3 Seek First to Understand
When you are actively listening, you are suspending the need to form any judgments or give advice. Instead, you are listening with your ears, eyes, and heart to understand what the other person is saying beyond just their words.
It will not be easy! So, you will want to be compassionate with yourself on this journey.
First, you will want to interrupt. One reason, of course, is your brain is working overtime. Another reason is you will be afraid you will forget your thoughts unless you share them right away. Other times you may want to blurt out because of your ADHD challenge with managing your emotions.
Writing down their main points is one way to address these challenges. You know how wonky your memory is. So, do not try to keep it in your head! I know taking notes will not always be possible. But try to do it when you can.
Yes, I know I said you should suspend forming any judgments or giving advice. But, since these thoughts will pop up despite your best efforts, write them down. In meditation, you label your thoughts and return to the breath. Similarly, write down your thoughts, and then you can return to active listening because you won’t be afraid of forgetting them.
#4 Ask Clarifying Questions
Interrupting is not always bad, though. In fact, sometimes asking questions can help you listen better, especially when you lose the thread because of a distraction or not understanding what the other person is saying. In these instances, interrupting to ask clarifying questions is a good thing.
Yet, I know you may be reticent to interrupt because you are embarrassed you are not catching on or think it is rude to interrupt. But the longer you stay in the weeds, the worse it will get. You will be more prone to other distractions, and it will be harder to catch up, right?
While you might find it uncomfortable at first, you can practice interrupting with phrases, such as:
- That was a lot of information. 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?
You are going to take a mental detour on occasion, for sure!
You might be surprised that most people are not put off in the least by your questions. It all depends on how you do it. They may even appreciate your questions. As it shows you are engaged and actively listening. Better than bobbing your head and pretending to listen, right
#5 Be Curious
Another way to fill in the space between your race car brain and the slow pace of someone talking is to be curious about the content of what they’re saying. Your ADHD brain is good at that. And when you do this, you will be less likely to go down one rabbit hole after another with tangential or even unrelated thoughts.
One way to do this is to imagine where the conversation is going. For example, as your boss is talking to you about changing priorities, you might think to yourself. That is interesting. I wonder if there is a reason she thinks we should pivot to the Sparta project now. Maybe there is a change in the market?
Looking for evidence is another way to be curious in a conversation. So, in this conversation with your boss, you might wonder. I will be interested to hear the basis for her decision to change direction midstream. Hopefully, she’ll touch on that, or I can ask her later.
Another way to be curious in a conversation is to pay attention and see how nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice) add meaning to the words. You might think to yourself as you are listening. That was interesting. She paused for a long time before answering my question.
Go ahead. Use your natural curiosity to stay actively engaged in your next conversation.
#6 Share Your Thoughts
Active listening does not mean you do not share your thoughts. After all, it is a conversation! In fact, like asking clarifying questions, interrupting to throw in your two cents can also demonstrate you are listening. If the comment is relevant, of course. 😉
While you may find it easy to interject with family and friends, I know you may find it awkward in other contexts, such as work or social settings where you don’t know the people well. Again, this may be because you are afraid it may seem rude.
But, like interrupting to ask clarifying questions, you can also learn how to interrupt graciously to throw in your two cents worth. Really. Of course, it will depend on the context. You will want to take a beat to read the room to know when it is ok to interject.
One way to share your thoughts when someone else is speaking is to ask permission. Then you won’t have to worry about appearing impolite. Because you’re asking for the go-ahead and not just blurting out whatever is on your mind. For example, you might ask:
- Do you mind if I interrupt for a sec? I have some thoughts about that.
- I have an idea about that. Do you mind if I share it?
Again, interrupting is not always a bad thing. Once you practice doing this, you’ll likely find the other person will gladly cede the floor. Because they feel they have a choice, and you are not forcing them to stop talking. Of course, sometimes they may ask to finish their thought before hearing what you have to say.
Where can you practice sharing your thoughts in a conversation this week?
#7 Take the Time to Digest and Synthesize the Information
After you put in the effort to listen well, you will often need to take some action. Remember, a conversation is not complete until you take the next step. At the same time, closing the loop may not be your strong suit. So, you will want to utilize a strategy to help you follow up.
For example, because of your ADHD-related challenges processing information on the spot, it may be challenging, while still in the conversation, for you to decide what to do next. You may need more time to synthesize the information. In these instances, scheduling a time to do this necessary upfront thinking is one way to help you follow through.
But you do not want to appear confused or disinterested. So, as with interrupting, you may not be comfortable asking for time after the conversation to do this. One way to avoid the appearance of not knowing what is going on is to be transparent about your needs.
Better than trying to figure out what to say and either fumbling with your words or impulsively blurting something out that you may later regret. So you can clearly and succinctly offer your thoughts on your timetable, here are a few ways to ask for time to think :
- I’m not 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. Is that ok if we meet next week? What’s a good time for you?
- We’ve talked about a lot, and I’d like to take time to digest it 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 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 offer thoughtful responses. You may not always be able to do it in the moment. And that is ok!
What are your reasons for wanting to learn how to listen better? Which of the above strategies will you try this week so you can upgrade your skills and be more engaged in your conversations?