People with ADHD have a hard time with conversation. They might get distracted and lose track of what the other person is saying. They might ramble, and monopolize the conversation, said psychotherapist Terry Matlen, ACSW.
They might interrupt. They might stand too close to the person they’re talking to. They might monitor everything they say because of past social slipups, said Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of several books on ADHD, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD.
The good news is that these potential stumbles have solutions. Being able to connect with others and navigate social situations takes learning a few new tools and practicing them regularly.
Below, Sarkis and Matlen shared eight strategies to try.
1. Ask questions.
“People, in general, like to talk about themselves,” said Matlen, also author of the book Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. Engage individuals by asking them questions about their lives, work and family, she said. Just keep the conversation balanced by also “talking about yourself or the topic at hand.”
2. Watch another person’s mouth.
If your own thoughts keep distracting you, watch the mouth of the person you’re talking to, Matlen said. Doing so involves the senses of sight and hearing. “The more senses you involve, the easier it is to attend and stay connected.”
3. Change your environment.
“[M]any with ADHD are extremely hypersensitive to their environment,” Matlen said. This makes it tough to filter out noise at parties and actually focus on what people are saying to you, she said. In those instances, tell the person that you’d love to hear what they’re saying and that “it’s important to you.” Then suggest moving to a quieter room, she said.
4. Be honest.
People with ADHD tend to interrupt others because they’re afraid of forgetting their point. To navigate this potential problem, just be honest. “[S]ay that you have something to share that you don’t want to forget, yet you don’t want to interrupt,” Matlen said. “This puts the other person on alert as to why you need time to interject your thoughts before forgetting them.”
You don’t need to say anything about having ADHD. But you might mention that you’re easily forgetful.
Or just let yourself forget. “There’s a good chance it will come to you later, in which case you can then call or email him or her.”
5. Practice conversations with someone you trust.
“Practice having a conversation with a good friend or relative, someone who cares and understands you and your ADHD,” Matlen said. Avoid what she called “toxic help,” or people who continually criticize you.
Practice chatting about different topics, and ask for honest feedback. For instance, you might ask, “Are you giving him or her enough time to be part of the conversation? Are you going off [on] too many tangents or directions?”
It’s also helpful to practice proper distance during conversations. Again, people with ADHD have trouble judging how far is far enough between them and their conversation partner.
Sarkis suggested getting a hula-hoop, which serves as a helpful visual representation of appropriate distance. “Practice conversation role-plays with the hula-hoop between you and your conversation partner.”
6. Use a secret signal.
Another way you can ask a loved one for help is by having “a non-verbal signal worked out between the two of you.” Sarkis said. “For example, when your friend or family member tugs on their earlobe, that’s a sign that you need to wrap up your story.”
7. Pay attention to how others handle conversations.
For instance, watch a person’s pacing, Matlen said. “Notice how each person pauses, giving the other person time to participate.”
8. Use a fidget.
“Many people with ADHD seem to think faster than they can talk, even faster than the other person can get their point across, and they can get annoyed, impatient and irritated,” Matlen said.
Using a fidget, such as a small ball you can squeeze, helps you focus and calm yourself when you get distracted or want to interrupt the other person, she said.
In addition to the above strategies, medication also helps. “Medications for ADHD, when working optimally, can help increase focus during conversations, and can help people with ADHD stay on topic during conversations,” Sarkis said. “They also provide time to think about something before saying it.”