The ADHD Guide to Naturally Flowing, ‘Normal’ Conversations

There’s a general assumption that people know the unspoken, unwritten, often mysterious rules of social engagement. These assumptions do not account for the experience of living with neurodiversity. Either way, it’s never too late to learn how to have a conversation.

Image: pixelfit/Getty Images
Image: pixelfit/Getty Images

Communication can be tricky for people with ADHD, who may interrupt too much, speak too quickly, or space out unintentionally and miss key elements of a conversation. As a result, many individuals worry that they will say something stupid in conversation, or that they’ll try so hard to appear “normal” that they end up looking strange. The task becomes so daunting, people may question their ability to engage in naturally flowing, comfortable conversations.

There’s a general assumption that people know the unspoken, unwritten, and often mysterious rules of social engagement. These assumptions do not account for the experience of living with neurodiversity — some people with ADHD, learning differences, and/or autistic individuals may not understand these “basic” rules of conversation, or may have never learned them. Anxiety and other disorders may also impact social skills.

But it’s never too late to learn how to have a conversation. Use these pointers to participate in conversations appropriately and confidently.

How to Have a Conversation

1. Join the conversation

Always ask if you can join an ongoing conversation instead of jumping in. If you just plop yourself down, you may or may not be wanted. Then — this is especially important for people with ADHD — listen. Assess what’s happening verbally and emotionally by taking in the information around you.

[Get This Free Download: Become a Small-Talk Superstar]

2. Participate in the conversation

Remain engaged by practicing and showing good listening skills. Reflect back part of what you hear with mirroring statements such as, “So what you’re saying is…” or summarizing statements like, “Oh, wow, you just got that new job. Fantastic.” These statements are validating and show the other person that you’re tuned in. Ask questions, but not so many questions that it feels like you are conducting an interview. Avoid passing judgment or putting down someone else’s concerns or experiences, because they could feel invalidated and quickly end your conversation.

Pause before you interrupt a conversation to catch up on something you may have missed. By blurting something like, “What? What’s happening?” you’ll only show others that you’ve spaced out. Instead, discreetly ask a nearby friend, “What are they talking about?” or simply track the conversation to get up to speed.

When speaking, pay attention to the speed of your words and the volume. Are you speaking too slowly or quickly? Or louder or quieter than other people? Can you hear yourself? What is the tone of your voice? Can a buddy signal to you if you’re too loud or too soft? Check out other people’s facial reactions for information about the speed and volume of your voice.

Consider your body language and facial expressions, too. Interest and engagement look open and calm — a relaxed posture, leaning forward, or making eye contact. When you sit with your arms and legs crossed and look away, you communicate discomfort and judgment. Body movements may also be distracting or off putting to others. If you have Tourette’s or otherwise struggle with fidgeting, let others know that your body may do things that you’re unaware of.

Most importantly, you want to appear genuine in conversation. Try to avoid saying or doing something that’s based on your own anxiety or insecurities and stay present with what’s happening instead.

[Read: Paying Attention During Conversation]

3. Leave the conversation

When it’s time to leave the conversation, acknowledge your departure. Don’t just get up and leave. Say something about needing to leave like, “Great to see you again. I gotta run. See you soon.” This shows you are exiting the conversation rather than leaving and abandoning it.

How to Have a Conversation: Remember APPLE

Use the acronym APPLE to help you remember the basic rules of conversation.

A: Ask to join conversations. Assess and ask relevant questions.
P: Physical proximity and volume. Place yourself appropriately near others. Some people are naturally kind of touchy, but other people don’t like to be touched at all. (With the pandemic, people are generally not comfortable standing close together.) Notice and copy the volume and expressiveness of the people around you.
P: Participate with reflective statements that show you’re listening. Show genuine curiosity about others’ experiences and avoid making any judgments.
L: Lay off the self-criticism. Turn down the volume on internal negative voices, which are often wrong. Instead, stay present and engaged with what’s happening now.
E: Enjoy connecting and sharing what’s special and fun about you, and learning what’s interesting and compelling about others.

Conversations and communication are a give-and-take. By practicing these guidelines, you can become a confident conversationalist!

How to Have a Conversation: Next Steps

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