Have you been in conversations with people who frequently interrupt others when they’re speaking? Or people who seem distracted and appear to be thinking about other things while you’re talking. That kind of behavior can be irritating and seem downright rude, but there may be a very good explanation. These scenarios are typical of conversations with ADHD Adults.
People without ADHD often perceive those with ADHD as fidgety and distracted, chasing every squirrel or shiny new thing they see. There are elements of truth in that common view of people with ADHD, but the reality is much more subtle and complex.
Read on if you want to know why people with Adult ADHD may find conversations stressful and how you can help them.
Idea Processing in Conversations with ADHD Adults
There are different degrees of ADHD. Everyone experiences it in their own way. Many people with ADHD find it difficult to formulate a cohesive series of logical arguments. For someone with ADHD, formulating a logical argument in their mind is like trying to get ten kittens to stand in a straight line. They may get one or two ideas in place. However, by the time they get to number three or four, the first idea has vanished. Not only is it no longer in place, but often they can’t even remember what it was. This phenomenon can be embarrassing.
Sometimes an ADHD adult starts describing an idea that is not fully formed. They assume they’ll just connect the dots as they speak. But then, halfway through their explanation or story, they lose their train of thought. They cut the statement off abruptly or finish it with an idea that doesn’t logically connect to the first part of their argument. When they realize what they just did, their brain starts swirling with thoughts of what the other person thinks of them. That train of thought further damages their ability to cut through the noise and formulate clear ideas.
Workplace Conversation Challenges for ADHD Adults
This limitation in thoughtful expression can be particularly troublesome in a work setting. We all (not just those with ADHD) want to feel our opinions are heard and want to be seen as valuable team members. We want to contribute to the overall success of the organization. The primary way we achieve all the above is by communicating our ideas to others.
Writing an email or report or putting together a presentation gives an adult with ADHD the time and mental space to clearly formulate and articulate their thoughts, so they can produce something of value. In contrast, the multi-channel, real-time nature of verbal conversation gives no such quarter. The ADHD person’s difficulty in holding a train of thought during conversations is compounded by the fact that they are constantly distracted by the ongoing conversation and by the new ideas presented by others.
This challenge is not unique to people with ADHD, but it is certainly magnified in them. The difficulty is amplified even more in group settings, when ideas are being thrown out in rapid-fire succession. Now they’re trying to line up those kittens outside during a hurricane! It can easily become overwhelming.
In those situations, someone with ADHD will usually respond in one of two ways: either they shut down and stop participating in the conversation or they start blurting out ideas, regardless of who else is talking at the time. This second pattern of behavior is a coping strategy they adopted to deal with the challenges of ADHD.
Adult ADHD vs. Rudeness
For someone who is actively trying to contribute to a conversation, the inability to retain ideas in memory can create anxiety, which then causes them to act in ways that violate social etiquette. This can be true even if the unpleasant behavior is not typical for them. Years of painful and sometimes embarrassing situations have taught them that thoughts and ideas are fleeting. They have learned that if they don’t capture them when they have the opportunity, they will disappear forever. When the stakes are high enough, the urge to make sure their ideas are heard overrides conversation etiquette. They feel like their brain will explode if they don’t get their ideas out.
To be clear, I’m not trying to justify this kind of behavior. Sometimes people really are rude and inconsiderate and it can be difficult if not impossible to tell the difference. I am simply suggesting that, if you find yourself talking to a person with this behavior, there may be an explanation other than rudeness.
So if you find yourself in a situation where another person interrupts the conversation, what should you do?
How You Can Help in Conversations with ADHD Adults
The first thing you should do is consider the context. If you know the person or have been around them even a few times before, do they always behave this way? If the answer to that question is yes, it may not be related to ADHD. It may simply be their normal behavior.
If the answer is no, consider whether this conversation is about a topic in which they seem particularly interested or for which they have a vested interest in the outcome. If so, then it could be they are so excited about the topic that they can’t contain themselves. It’s also possible they’re feeling stressed about making their ideas heard. In either case, their behavior is an indicator of what’s going on inside their brain. Don’t take it as a sign that they dislike you or aren’t interested in what you have to say. It’s not personal.
If you’re in a one-on-one conversation with the person, you could simply slow the pace of the conversation. Give the other person space to think before they jump in with a reply that might further aggravate the situation. If you know the person well enough, ask if they need a moment to collect their thoughts.
In a group setting, if you notice someone getting excited and blurting out new ideas, try these actions. You can redirect the conversation back to their original idea and ask for clarification. You might rephrase what you heard them say, ask if it’s correct, and then offer any insight you drew from their comment. Taking this approach helps the ADHD adult in at least three ways.
First, it brings the conversation back to their idea. This tactic may alleviate their concern that they missed their chance to make their point. Or worse, they have to figure out how to bring it up again. Second, it lends credibility to the idea. If another person appears to be giving their contribution serious consideration, it can put them more at ease. That can help them think more clearly. Third, your perspective may help fill in some of the gaps in their thinking. This can reduce their stress level and help them shape the idea further.
The Power of Empathy
There isn’t really any downside to taking control of a conversation by slowing it down and checking that everyone is understood. This is especially true when someone seems to be in distress over the conversation. If the person does not have ADHD, putting the spotlight on them is likely to make their rude behavior disappear. If you are dealing with someone with ADHD, you can gain an ally by helping them overcome a stressful situation.
In either case, you can create win/win conversations by having empathy and knowing when and how to take control of the communication.
Thanks again to Rich O’Ben, our guest blogger and Founder of The Motivation Mindset (www.TheMotivationMindset.com).