Friendships

Is Your ADHD Causing Social Slip-Ups?

“People with ADHD know what they should do. They sometimes have trouble doing it.” Whether your enthusiasm leads to interruption or your distraction is interpreted as rudeness, these expert tips will help improve social skills and strengthen personal and professional relationships.

an adult woman with ADHD looks at her phone screen in surprise and dismay after her symptoms caused another social slip-up
an adult woman with ADHD looks at her phone screen in surprise and dismay after her symptoms caused another social slip-up

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, coworker, or acquaintance that starts out well, but takes a turn for the worse? Your conversation mate suddenly signals that she has to take a call in the middle of an important point you’re making or responds less and less to what you think are clever remarks.

Good social skills require attention. We need to notice the cues that tell us what someone is thinking or feeling. This social dexterity allows us to hold back a comment, so that we can follow the conversation’s progression. Without these skills, it’s easy to step on toes and lose friends.

Enthusiasm Overload

Steph, who is diagnosed with ADHD, learned this the hard way when she met her boyfriend’s parents. Wanting to make a good impression, she eagerly participated in the conversation, only to find his parents getting quieter through dinner. In the car going home, her boyfriend pointed out that she cut his parents off in order to make her own points. She was shocked that her enthusiasm had offended them.

People with ADHD know what they should do. They sometimes have trouble doing it. Steph knows why her boyfriend’s parents didn’t like being interrupted, but because she didn’t realize she was doing it, she couldn’t adjust her behavior. Her boyfriend’s parents were not enamored of her.

Steph talked to her boyfriend about the pressure she felt to make a good impression, and how she hadn’t realized that she was interrupting. She fixed the situation by sending them a thank-you card for the dinner and writing a note explaining that her excitement to meet them had gotten the best of her. She ended on a positive note, telling them that she looked forward to getting together again.

As she thought about it, she realized that she interrupts others when she is excited or nervous. She talked to her boyfriend about it, and they agreed that he would tap her under the table if he noticed too much enthusiasm. This gave them both more confidence that future outings would go better.

Miscommunication on the Job

Social situations at work are harder to address because we don’t have a partner nearby to nudge us. Fortunately, most people have only a few behaviors that they repeat. If you can identify two or three ways that you get yourself into trouble, you can notice when they happen. Think about what supervisors have noted in your evaluations as areas to work on. If you have a coworker you trust, ask for her candid advice.

When Roberto did this, he was told that he looked like he was lost in thought during conversations and meetings. This made others think that he was bored. Roberto took this information to heart and thought about ways to look like he was engaged. When he caught himself drifting off, he made a point of showing that he was engaged in the conversation by making eye contact. If he felt like he had missed too much, or that the other person was offended at his seeming disinterest, he’d say, “I’m sorry, I got caught up thinking about what you said in the beginning and missed the rest of your comments. Could you repeat them?” This showed his supervisor and coworkers that he was indeed interested in what they are saying.

Canceling Commitments

James knew that he tended to bite off more than he could chew, but he didn’t realize how often he did this until a friend angrily pointed out that he always canceled plans at the last minute. As James thought about it, he realized that he had the same problem at work as in his personal life—lots of projects and activities were interesting in the moment, so he would agree to them too quickly, without thinking about how they would fit into his existing commitments.

James made a two-part plan. The first part was to make sure he put commitments into the calendar on his phone. The second part was to resist agreeing to anything new (no matter how interesting) without first checking his calendar and making an honest assessment of whether he could fit it in. He would occasionally take on too much, but it happened less often, and that made a big difference in how people thought of him.


Don’t Be Defensive

Getting advice from a friend or family member, solicited or otherwise, is a good way to learn about our social blind spots. People with ADHD, though, are generally quick to get defensive when it comes to receiving advice. Here is a constructive way of looking at feedback from others:

  • Remember that no one likes getting negative feedback, but if the feedback is accurate, it will save you more pain later.
  • Ask yourself whether the person is giving the feedback with good intentions and is trying to be helpful.
  • Ask yourself whether you have gotten similar feedback from others. If so, it is more likely to be accurate and reasonable.
  • Stop yourself from responding and listen to what they are saying. Ask for specific examples to ensure that you understand what they mean.
  • Remember that it is your choice to follow the advice, but also remember that the benefits will be yours as well.

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