ADHD Adults: How to Build Social Skills and Avoid Accidentally Offensive Behavior

ADHD adults sometimes commit social blunders without ever realizing it. Here's how to catch your mistakes, and learn the unspoken give-and-take that accompanies every conversation.

Smooth out your social skills ADDitude Magazine

For the socially awkward, faux pas may seem inevitable -- your tongue gets tied, or your mouth goes into overdrive. To complicate matters, it is generally regarded as impolite to point out social errors, so it is seldom done. Thus, the unintentional offender may never know that she did anything wrong. But imagine trying to learn math if no one ever told you when you had the right or the wrong answer. How could you?

Read Body Language to Identify the Signs You've Made a Mistake

The first step is to look for clues that you may have committed a blunder. One client I worked with complained that his wife often got angry and left the room, slamming the door, without any warning. I asked Gary to look for clues that she was getting angry, to see what, if anything, led to the slamming-the-door stage. I was sure that she must have given some verbal or nonverbal indications that she was getting upset.

A week later, Gary returned, very excited. "Doc, you were right. I never noticed it before, but her eyes got squinty, her face got red. She clenched her teeth and pressed her lips together, and her voice got high-pitched. Then she left the room, slamming the door. It was great. I never actually saw her get angry before. I always thought she just slammed the door."

Thus, I had to work with Gary on changing or explaining his behavior to his wife while he still could. By the time she reached the slamming-the-door stage, she was usually no longer willing to talk or listen.

ADHD Awkward Socializing in Action

Mary's perspective
Last night I invited my friend, Lisa, to my house. When she arrived, I greeted her at the door and complimented her on her outfit. I tried to start several conversations, but Lisa didn't say much, and she left after only an hour. After Lisa was gone, I wondered what was wrong with her. Truthfully, I was a little angry about her rapid departure.

Lisa's perspective
I was pleased that my friend, Mary, invited me over for the evening, but when I got there, she said, "Hey, you don't look fat at all in that outfit!" I was mortified. My flushed face and sullen mood made it clear that she had hurt my feelings, so I wondered why Mary didn't say she was sorry. When she still hadn't apologized after an hour, I just decided to go home.

Lisa was the victim of the ADHD equivalent of the 1-2 knockout punch.
1. Mary said something hurtful, albeit unintentionally.
2. She failed to notice her friend's nonverbal language, which would have indicated that she had committed a faux pas.

If Mary's or Gary's situations sound familiar, you, too, may be throwing those involuntary 1-2 punches. Use these strategies for reading the clues and smoothing out your interpersonal relationships:

Saving Social Graces

  • Be on the lookout for nonverbal clues. People may be sending you nonverbal clues to indicate their displeasure. These include body language, such as moving away from you, cutting conversations short, or crossing their arms or legs. Also note facial expressions, such as red faces, scowls, tight lips, or hurt or angry eyes.
  • Review the scene. Play back the conversation in your mind to recall whether you did or said anything provocative.
  • Solicit input from friends. Ask whether you said or did anything offensive. If you're having problems with your spouse or someone else who is close to you, request that person to articulate her anger instead of sending only nonverbal clues.
  • Seek assistance. A counselor or coach with expertise in adult AD/HD and social skills can help.

Even if, like Mary and Gary, hurting someone was not your intention, hurting may happen all too often. But, with careful observation and some persistence, you can learn to stop these 1-2 punches before they hit the unintended target.

This article comes from the April-May 2005 Issue of ADDitude.

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