(originally published November 10, 2017, updated January 12, 2023 )
Communicating well in everyday run-of-the-mill conversations can be difficult for ADHD adults. I wrote about this in the two previous articles, ADHD Adults Communicate Better Using These 7 Listening Tips and 5 Strategies You Need to Use to Be Better Understood in Conversations.
But you will need a different skill set to handle crucial conversations. These are conversations where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, according to authors Joseph Grenny et al. of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. The authors also note that:
Our natural tendencies in moments that seem threatening lean toward fight or flight rather than listen and speak.
This can be especially true for ADHD adults for reasons I will explore in a bit.
To avoid a fight or flight response you will first want to learn how to identify when you are entering this type of conversation. And then use the skills below to navigate them. So you don’t react impulsively.
Ready to get started?
What Makes a Conversation Crucial?
I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations where opinions vary. It might be a disagreement between you and your boss about how to tackle an important project. Maybe you and your spouse disagree on how to handle the household finances. Then again, it might a difference of opinion between you and your teenager about curfew.
In these and other contexts where opinions vary, emotions can also run strong. And regardless of whether the issue is a big deal to you in the long run, because of your ADHD, you may have difficulty regulating your emotions. So before you can take a beat and consider what you want to do, your logical brain may go offline, and your emotional brain takes over.
In addition to opinions varying and emotions running strong, the stakes are also high in crucial conversations. This means the outcome of the conversation, whether it goes well or not, could have a huge impact on the quality of your life.
And this is the reason learning how to navigate these types of conversations is so important.
Examples of High Stakes Conversations
The first step in doing this is to be aware when you’re about to enter a high stakes conversation. So you don’t inadvertently step on a landmine and incur catastrophic results. Think of a conversation you’ve had whereby the resulting fallout of a conversation that ended poorly impacted your life significantly. These might include:
- approaching a neighbor about their noise level
- talking to your relatives about how they treat your kids
- speaking with your boss about the impact of their behavior on you
- discussing spending/finances with your spouse
- confronting your teen/young adult about their behavior
- telling a friend you can’t honor their request.
- drawing boundaries with your parents about their behavior in your home
- asking a colleague to do their fair share of the workload
As you read through this list, I’m sure you can imagine the multitude of ways these conversations could go wrong and have serious consequences. Not only are relationships and jobs lost or seriously fractured, but the physical and mental health of the people involved can also be impacted when this happens.
So, it totally makes sense you may want to avoid having them! I know I do!
When a Crucial Conversations Is Not Worth It
While there are times you may want the situation to be different, you may opt not to try to change it, not engage in a crucial conversation. When making this decision you may want to consider Dr. Edward Hallowell’s adaptation of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The insight to prioritize wisely what I want to change;
The patience to resist trying to control everything I could, had I the energy and time;
The courage and skill to change the things I have chosen to change;
And the wisdom to know the differences among all these.
If you do not believe you can change the situation, you might decide not to have the conversation. Unless, of course, your goal is just to make your opinion known. Then there are those times when you might be able to change the situation. But still may decide having the conversation is not worth your time and energy.
How Do Crucial Conversations Start
Sometimes the negative impact on your life of not changing a situation is no longer tenable for you. So you may decide the tradeoff of having a hard conversation is worth it. Rather than dealing with the consequences of not having one.
If there is a situation you’d like to change in your life right now, is there a conversation you need to have to make this happen? Is it worth your time and energy to try to change the situation? Remember the serenity prayer above.
And there are times you don’t have an option. Others may engage you in a crucial conversation. Before you’ve had a chance to run the other way. 😉
Whether you initiate the conversation or someone else does, you’ll want to upgrade your skills if you don’t think you have what it takes to engage in these productively. As part of this journey, it will be helpful to know how your ADHD might get in your way. So you can go into the conversation with your eyes wide open and prepared.
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. Knowing your ADHD challenges, such as the ones below, will help you understand why and create workable strategies to have healthier conversations.
- Because of your working memory challenges, you may find it hard to retrieve, organize and process information to participate effectively in a conversation. Especially if it is fast-paced.
- Because of challenges with emotional regulation, a conversation may start well but devolve quickly into a conflict.
- The back and forth of conversations, especially passionate ones, may feel overwhelming because there are so many internal (thoughts and feelings) and external distractions. So, it may be hard for you to attend to all facets of the conversation.
When you are overwhelmed and over-stimulated because of your ADHD-related challenges, crucial conversations can be more difficult, no doubt.
Because these conversations are so hard for ADHD adults, the first step, whenever possible, is preparing to have one. Below is a taste of some steps you can take to do this.
Then, if you want to learn more, I encourage you to read or listen to Crucial Conversations.
When A Conversation Goes South
Often conversations go south because of the stories we create about the facts. These stories can lead us to feel and act in a certain way, as you can see below in the hypothetical case of Yaiza.
Yaiza and her boss, Erica, disagreed on the speakers for a conference their company is hosting. That was a fact.
Then there was Yaiza’s story. She believed Erica did not respect her and did not ever consider her opinions. And the more she thought of it, the angrier she became.
Yaiza decided it was time to stand up for herself and tell her boss what she was thinking. So she Erica, I don’t think you respect me or value my input. I think the conference is going to tank with the speakers we have. We really need to reconsider this.
Obviously, the chances of having a healthy conversation tanked, as well.
# 1 Know Your Story
The first step is to know your story and separate it from the facts. As I noted above, they disagreed on the speakers for the conference. That was a fact.
What made Yaiza so angry was the story she made up about this. That is, she decided Erica didn’t respect her or value her input. Of course, we don’t know whether this is true or not.
Let’s assume what Yaiza really wanted was for Erica to listen to her ideas about the speakers for the conference. With that objective in mind and without the story, she might have a better chance of having a productive conversation with Erica.
One of the keys to having a productive conversation is to separate stories from facts before you go into a crucial conversation.
# 2 Establish Safety by Finding a Mutual Purpose
Another key is to make it safe for the other person to engage with you in the conversation, which Yaiza obviously did not do in the example above. When you begin with heart, though, and consider how you would want someone to treat you in a similar situation, you can begin doing this. You can see how Yaiza did this below:
I know Erica is under a lot of pressure. I feel she does not listen to me or even respect me, though I do not know if that’s true. But I know we both want the conference to be a success and have put a lot of work it. Maybe I will approach her just about the speakers. And ask her if she would be willing to revisit it one more time to hear my concerns. Then I can take some time to decide whether I want to approach her after the conference about our working relationship.
Framing it this way for herself allows Yaiza to step out of her story. And go to the next step, deciding what she wants to say to Erica.
#3 Holding Your Ground Without Being Abrasive
Alert! 😉 This will be hard to do.
Because of your ADHD challenges, you may tend to come on too strong or alternatively fold at the last minute because of your fear of coming on too strong. If you want to avoid either of these scenarios, you will likely need to prepare what you want to say, maybe even rehearse it.
I know you may think this is a lot of work. I agree!
But when there is a lot at stake, you may decide it is worth it. For example, blowing up at her boss does not bode well for Yaiza’s job security. So, to avoid saying something she might regret later, she could write out the following before their conversation:
Erica, I know there is a lot going on right now. We are all under a lot of pressure with this conference and want it to go well. We also need to wrap up the open loops as quickly as possible. But I have concerns about the speakers and would like to revisit the choices.
Notice how Yaiza tried to make the conversation safe so Erica would not feel attacked. Whether Erica will be open to revisiting the choices is, of course, not a certainty.
#4 Listening When Others Blow Up
Whether precipitated by something you said or not, people will blow up. Hopefully, this does not happen often. But when it does, and it is a high-stakes conversation, you will want to be ready to respond the way you want.
Responding in a measured way is also hard for ADHD adults, as your ADHD brain may get overstimulated. Then you may become dysregulated and react impulsively. To avoid doing this you will want to have strategies you can use in these moments. Then know how to use them when you need them.
In some instances, you may need to step out of the conversation. First, take some deep breaths. Really. Then you might say, I hear you are mad right now, but I can not have a productive conversation. I feel overloaded and can not think clearly. I need to take a beat. Can we talk later?
Alternatively, if you can stay in the conversation, you might get curious. And say, I hear you are mad. What is going on? This might diffuse the situation and give the other person an opportunity to share how they are feeling.
Where Do You Want to Start?
The above suggestions are not comprehensive by any means. But, again, I hope they give you an idea about what’s involved in having a crucial conversation. And, if you choose to, you could do more work in this area by upgrading your skills.
It will take practice and will likely not come easy to you. So, give yourself the space-time and compassion you need on your journey.