The ADHD Conflict Resolution Guide: Tools and Scripts for Settling Disagreements

Conflict – within families and in other relationships – is normal. But disagreement can grow heated when ADHD sparks anger, impulsivity, and intense emotions. The best way to handle conflict is to prepare for it by creating a conflict resolution plan in advance. Here, find scripts and ideas for handling disagreements with tools like reflecting listening, the STAR method, and more.

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Conflict Resolution 101

Conflict is a normal part of any ongoing relationship. Whether it’s with family members or friends, conflict happens when we try to attend to our needs in a way that disrupts how others attend to their needs. Managing conflict without escalating to heated arguments and hurt feelings is hard enough; for reactive ADHD brains that are sensitive to criticism and rapidly flood with intense emotions, it may feel downright impossible. It is not.

The key? A conflict resolution plan for handling disagreements when they inevitably come up. A good plan will incorporate tools that support connection, accountability, and emotional regulation, using the ideas below.

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #1: Use Reflective Listening

By far the most helpful conflict resolution tool, reflective listening can help all parties say what they want to say and feel heard in the heat of the moment. Plan to practice the following reflective listening exercise at least two times a week with your partner or teen. That way, you’ll be able to use these skills in the middle of an upset, when they are most effective.

  • Agree on the session’s length and how long each person will have to speak. Ten minutes total is a good starting point for those who are new to the practice.
  • Start the timer as one person speaks while the other party listens respectfully, without reacting.
  • The speaker should pause after a sentence or two to allow the listener to repeat aloud what they’ve heard. When repeating what they heard, the listener should try to stay as close to the speaker’s words as possible. Listening, holding information, and repeating it back can be challenging, especially for those with ADHD, so listeners should gently raise their hands to indicate that they need the speaker to pause so they can digest what's been said.
  • When repeating what they’ve heard, the listener should say, “What I heard you say is this:… Did I get it right? Is there anything else?” This allows the speaker to either say yes and continue, or to repeat their point if the listener missed a few things.
  • The process continues until the timer goes off. Then the roles reverse.
  • At the end of the session, the conversation is considered over. Do not unpack whatever was said during the session after it ends. Leave it for the next session. If you don’t, the unpacking will surely end in an argument.

The listener’s role is far more challenging when there's been an upset. Listeners have to put aside their own feelings while reflecting back words that might seem outrageous or unfair. But it's part of the process. All parties will have their turn to gather their thoughts and share them in the session. For this reason, it might help for each person to have five minutes to share before switching roles.

Reflective listening is useful for navigating tough situations, but it isn’t exclusively for sharing emotional pain or trouble. You can use it to talk about anything, even the seemingly mundane, like what happened in your day.

Reflective Listening: Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #2: Use the STAR Method

STAR stands for stop, think, act, and recover, and it’s a useful tool for managing frustration and big emotions as tensions rise.

  • Stop: Call a pause to the action to allow yourself and others to calm down and avoid further activation. You can say, “I think we could all use a break right now.” Then, everyone should engage in a pre-planned soothing activity (e.g., going for a walk, doing a crossword puzzle, listening to music) for a predetermined amount of time.
  • Think: All parties will regroup to talk about what has happened (with fact-based, observational comments), ask questions about contributing factors, and listen to one another. The group will also discuss and brainstorm next steps for moving on from the tumultuous moment. Parties should use reflective listening skills here and avoid correcting, justifying, and/or invalidating others.
  • Act: Move into doing the steps you and others agreed on.
  • Recover: Give yourself time and space to heal from the disagreement. Absorb what happened. If you are a parent and there is a teaching moment here with your child, think of how to bring it up in the hours or day after the event without reactivating the entire experience. If you are an adult and the issue is with your partner, take the time you need to fully settle, and then ask if there is moment to unpack.

Managing Big Emotions: Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #3: Use Scripts That Encourage Conversation

It matters how you bring up and respond to an issue. Your approach can decide the outcome of the conversation and whether the issue gets resolved. Use these approaches and suggested scripts to guide your conversations:

  • “I feel ___ when I see you ___ because I need/want to ___.” Use “feeling” words like the following to fill in the blanks: sad; angry; hurt; frustrated; nervous; excluded; worried, betrayed. Avoid leading with “I think." This phrase is often a conversation closer because it tends to result in argument.
  • Approach with curious inquiry instead of assumptions. Say, “I wonder about…” or “What would it be like if..."
  • Start your questions with who, what, when, where, and how to encourage open conversation. Avoid approaching issues with “why” questions, which are often crafted with assumptions.
  • Remember your reflective listening skills: “What I heard you say is X. Did I get that right?” Say, “I heard…” instead of, “You said…”
  • Soften and reframe. Change “You can’t…” into “I’m not sure if…” or “That doesn’t work for me.” Use “and” instead of “but.”
  • Offer limited choices, especially when dealing with children: “What about x, y or z?” This helps them feel empowered and encourages participation. If three options are too many, use two.
  • Focus on collaboration rather than on dictating how the conversation and resolution should go. Nurture your existing connection.
  • Model the respect you expect. When you treat your child or your partner as an ally, they are far more likely to be one.

Avoid conversation igniters:

  • Don’t use critical, blaming, accusatory phrases such as, “I feel that you…” Stick to how you feel.
  • Don’t kill the messenger. Listen to the message.

Talk It Out: Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #4: Look Beyond the Surface of Anger

Anger, frustration, and rude behaviors usually mask other emotions, like anxiety and depression. Low self-esteem, shame, and feelings of guilt can also produce aggressive behaviors. Children frequently act out when they’re bored or frustrated. Act like Sherlock Holmes and investigate what’s underneath the anger, whether yours or someone else's.

Anger and Emotions: Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #5: Make Meaningful Amends

“I’m sorry” can become meaningless with repeated mistakes. It can also be loaded with shame and resentment, especially if one person is accustomed to being the offending party.

With your family, spouse, and across all your relationships, talk about what authentic apologies look like. This could be a combination of a verbal apology and doing something that demonstrates real accountability. (Making amends often goes beyond saying “I’m sorry” to showing it.)

Apologies and Amends: Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategy #6: Practice, Reset, and Practice Some More

If you are differently wired, it may feel impossible to pause and use conflict resolution strategies when a wave of emotions threatens to sweep you away. If you have a child or spouse with ADHD, know that their brains struggle with emotional regulation. If they could change their behaviors in a snap, they would.

Conflict won’t go away; it’s a natural part of being human. This is why we have to plan for it. Do your best to practice these strategies in the absence of conflict so that they can work when they are most needed. Expect setbacks (but without judgment) as you and others make it a habit to apply these methods, especially in the middle of an argument. All the while, make sure to attend to your emotional needs: practice mindfulness and self-compassion, focus on building positive relationships, and incorporate stress-management techniques into your daily life.

Next Steps

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Conflict Resolution Strategies: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “When ADHD Triggers Emotional Outbursts: Scripts for Your Flashpoints” [Video Replay & Podcast #426],” with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast on October 19, 2022.

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