One of the most difficult communication problems for ADHD adults is being able to navigate difficult conversations. I was reminded of this again as I was rereading Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson et al.
In fact, I often talk to clients about this topic. Sometimes our conversation is about how to mitigate the fallout of a conversation gone horribly wrong. Other times, our discussion revolves around conversations they are avoiding because they are afraid they might go awry.
These difficulties are often the result of both lacking the skills to dialogue better and their ADHD symptoms.
If having difficult conversations is a challenge for you now, there is another option, which is to:
- notice when you are about to enter a crucial conversation.
- stop before your emotions lead you down a path you don’t want to go down.
- strategize about how to have healthy conversations.
Below I’ll focus on strategies you can use to notice and put on the brakes, so you don’t say or do something you might regret.
What are Crucial Conversations for Adults with ADHD?
The first step is to recognize the types of conversations that may be particularly challenging to navigate — crucial conversations. According to the authors of Crucial Conversations they are:
Discussions between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.
I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations where opinions vary. Think of a situation you are in now. It could be you and your boss disagree on how to tackle an important project. Maybe you and your spouse disagree on how to handle the household finances.
And you may also be all too familiar with conversations where emotions run strong. These are the times when your logical brain goes off-line and your emotional brain takes over. You might become angry, scared or hurt. And then maybe you shut down or go on the attack.
But what does it mean when the stakes are high?
It could be, if the project you and your boss disagree about doesn’t go well, the company will lose a large account. And, if you are not able to resolve this disagreement, you could fracture your relationship with her. Maybe forever, right? After all, you never know the long-term consequences of conversations gone awry.
Likewise, each time you handle a conversation poorly with your spouse, it makes it harder to have the next conversation. And when it comes to finances, an emotional hot topic, there are all sorts of serious consequences if you do not handle them well.
Obviously, it pays to know how to handle these conversations well, right?
Why are Crucial Conversations so Hard for ADHD Adults?
While most of us find it hard to handle crucial conversations well, ADHD adults often find these particularly difficult. Being aware of your ADHD challenges, such as the ones below, can help you understand why this is the case, as well as create workable strategies to have healthier conversations.
- 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 may start off well, but devolve quickly into 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 may be hard for you to attend to all facets of the conversation.
And, when you are feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated, due in part to the above ADHD related challenges, crucial conversations may be difficult for you.
How to Stop Letting Your Stories Guide Your Actions
Yes, emotional regulation is a challenge for adults with ADHD. And when you let your emotions guide your actions, well, you know where that can lead you. And you might believe, though, you don’t have control over how you feel. Maybe you think other people are at fault for making you feel angry, scared or hurt?
But most often conversations go south because of the stories we make up about the facts. It is these stories that can lead us to feel and act in a certain way, as we can see below in the case of Yaiza.
Yaiza and her boss, Erica, disagreed on the speakers for the conference their company was hosting. That was a fact.
Then Yaiza decided Erica didn’t respect her. In fact, she told her colleagues that Erica never listened to her. This was her story. And, the more she thought of it, the angrier she became.
So, Yaiza decided that it was time to put a stop to this “terrible treatment.” And the only way to do this was to tell her boss what she was thinking. So, in their one-on-one, Yaiza, raising her voice, told Erica, “The conference is going to tank if we have the speakers you want. I’m sure of it! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Obviously, the chances of having a healthy conversation tanked as well.
Sound familiar? The key to not going down this road is to:
- know your story.
- then pause.
- explore whether there is another plausible story.
- and, after you’ve learned the strategies for having effective conversations, employ these strategies
But, because emotional regulation is a challenge, you may enter the fray before you have a chance to explore your story. The key to preventing this is to recognize the cues you are about to enter a crucial conversation.
How You Can Tell You’re Entering a Crucial Conversation
When you recognize the cues you are starting a crucial conversation, you can use this information to decide to pause. And taking the time to pause is key to not saying or doing something you might regret later.
You can start by paying attention to your own cues, such as:
- physical cues, such as a tight stomach, pounding heart, etc.
- thoughts, cognitive cues, of revenge, putdowns and more.
- actions or behavioral cues, including shutting down, retreating, being sarcastic, not making eye contact or clenching your fist.
- feelings that arise alongside or underneath your anger, emotional cues, like feeling disrespected, humiliated, rejected or just tired.
What are your cues you’re about to enter crucial conversations?
How to Pay Attention to the Conditions of the Conversation
Another way to recognize you are starting a crucial conversation is to pay attention to what is happening in the “room.” That is, you want to be adept at reading the temperature. Is there fear, anger, resignation, etc.?
When this happens, if people don’t have the skills to navigate the conversation, you might experience silence or violence, according to Patterson et al. You know what this looks like.
When there is silence people might avoid the conversation by shutting down or literally leaving the room. In other instances, people may change the topic to avoid the conversation. Using sarcasm or sugarcoating their words is another way people avoid saying what they really mean.
On the other hand, when people are violent in conversations, they may try to coerce you into their point of view. They may also label the ideas or the people as being bad or wrong. And, in the extreme, people may belittle or threaten others.
If you want to understand your style under stress take this 33 question test to see how you typically respond.
Next Step – Learning How to Have Effective Conversations
So far I’ve shared with you how to identify when you’re about to enter a crucial conversation. And I’ve suggested using this information to put the brakes on the conversation so it does not go horribly wrong.
The next step is learning how to have a healthy conversation — a conversation in which you can safely speak freely. If you’re curious how to do this, I would suggest you read or listen to Crucial Conversations as a first step.
But, you might be thinking, “This sounds like it will be really hard!” You’re right. It will be. But, if you’re willing to put in the effort, I know it’s also possible. And the payoffs can be tremendous. And, if you feel you need help in implementing these strategies, you might decide to reach out to a therapist or coach.
Ready to take the next step?