Because adults with attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are easily distracted by their environment and their own thoughts and feelings, listening to others is a challenge, according to Beth Main, a certified ADHD coach.
It’s a challenge in all kinds of settings, from one-on-one conversations to classroom lectures to work meetings.
After all, “Inability to sustain attention is one of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD.”
Adults who are hyperactive find it difficult to stay in the same place for a long time: “We need to keep moving. It’s as if we’re driven by a motor.”
This may manifest as remembering they left something in the other room, and rushing off to retrieve it while the other person is mid-sentence.
Adults with ADHD also tend to blurt out comments before the other person is finished talking, she said.
Problems with listening are the result of an impairment in the executive functions of the brain, according to Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, NCC, a psychotherapist and ADHD specialist. Executive functions help to inhibit and self-regulate behavior.
“When these functions are impaired, it is difficult for you to redirect yourself back to listening when you have drifted off,” Sarkis said.
Poor listening is problematic for many reasons. The biggest consequence is damaged relationships, according to Main. Listening is a key part of healthy, happy relationships and friendships. “If you’re not listening, it comes across like you don’t care.”
Not listening also means you miss important details, such as when your boss is giving you instructions for a project, or your teacher is giving a lecture that you’ll be tested on. Either scenario can lead to poor performance. However, listening is a skill that you can practice and improve by adopting strategies that work for you.
Here are six suggestions for becoming a better listener:
“Repeat back what you heard your conversation partner say,” said Sarkis, author of several books on ADHD, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals. This clarifies any misunderstandings and solidifies the conversation in your mind, she said.
It keeps you engaged in the conversation, and shows you’re interested in what the other person is saying, said Main, founder of ADHD Solutions.
When you’re in a work meeting, listening to a lecture or getting instructions from your partner, take notes. Main suggesting jotting down key words and questions you might have.
Another option is to ask the other person — such as a coworker or supervisor — to write things down, or email you the instructions, Sarkis said. “This way you have a paper trail,” and you’re protected “in case there is conflicting information about instructions.”
Avoid focusing on your next sentence.
“If you’re busy thinking about what you are going to say next, you can’t possibly be giving the other person your full attention,” according to Main.
Instead, trust that when it’s your turn to speak, you’ll know what to say, she said. “It seems counter-intuitive, but the more you let go of what you think you need to say, the better prepared you will be to actually say the right thing.”
Ask for key points.
When the person you’re speaking with is rambling or sharing minute details about things you don’t care about, kindly let them know you’re getting lost in the details, and ask them to share the key points, Main said.
Put the conversation in context.
Try to connect what the person is saying to something you already know, Main said. For instance, Main’s new client told her that his psychiatrist suggested trying a gluten-free diet to manage his ADHD. She recalled that two of her clients have seen an improvement in their symptoms after doing the same.
“It makes me curious about what the new client has experienced so far and leads to a productive discussion about diet.”
If you can’t create a connection, ask the person to give you one, she added.
Visualize the story.
People with ADHD are visual thinkers and learners, Main said. “Use this to your advantage.” She suggested imagining what the person is saying as a movie playing out in your head. “Imagine all the colorful details.”
For adults with ADHD listening can be a challenge. Thankfully, by employing certain strategies, you can sharpen your listening skills. Just find the tools that work best for you.