Focus & Attention

I’m Sorry — What Were You Saying?

You tune out sometimes, even when talking to your best friend and too often when your boss is watching. Learn why your ADHD brain wanders so easily, and what you can do to keep it focused on the conversation at hand.

woman with ADHD zones out instead of paying attention to a man talking to her
woman stares off into space as man sits across from her talking

Does your ADHD brain tune out and have a hard time paying attention, to your best friend who has invited you to coffee to explain why she broke up with the love of her life? Two sentences into her sad story, your mind has wandered. You hate to admit it, but you’re bored. She is taking too long to get to the point. You feel like you’ve heard it all before-she parted ways with another boyfriend just three months ago. Later in the day, you find yourself tuning out again-but at the office. Your boss tells you about your next assignment, and you begin to feel scared that you won’t be able to accomplish it. You become tied up with fear, and you zone out.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

You’re not weird, cold, or rude. You have ADHD. Your brain focuses on the connections and relationships between things more than on specific bits of information, so you are likely to drift away from a single thought into a complex web of feelings and ideas. Don’t beat yourself up or feel helpless because of it. Here are a few stay-tuned strategies that have worked to make me a better listener.

Engage the Speaker & Your Brain

When your mind drifts during a conversation, ask the person to repeat what she just said. If you ask with confidence, your request is usually perceived as a compliment. The other person thinks that she said something so important that it should be said again. You can even tell her that your mind drifted. Say, “I started thinking about what you were talking about, and I need you to repeat the last thing you said. I don’t want to miss anything.”

Repeating to yourself, under your breath, what the other person is saying can sometimes keep your mind in the flow of the conversation.

Nod your head slightly as the person talks, affirming to yourself that you are paying attention. Look the speaker in the eye. Occasionally repeat what the speaker said to show her-and you-that you’re listening.

Focus on the speaker’s mouth, as if you’re reading her lips, and tell yourself, “I only have to focus for a little longer. I can do it.”

Deal with Distractions

If you feel an emotion is distracting you from what is being said, note the feeling quickly and return your attention to the speaker. Promise yourself you’ll deal with your feelings later.

If you get hungry or tired of sitting, or your head is hurting, tell yourself that you’ll take care of it as soon as possible. If your conversation mate is a good friend or a family member, you might say, “I want to hear what you’re saying, but my stomach is growling. Can we get a snack while we’re talking?”

If music, the noisy construction crew across the street, or an overheated room is keeping you from paying attention, ask to close the door or to move to another venue.

Learn How to Fidget

Fiddle with something — a paper clip or a bracelet — or doodle on a piece of paper to keep you alert during conversation or a long meeting. Studies have shown that fidgeting can increase alertness.

If you feel yourself becoming bored, grit your teeth, wiggle your toes on the inside of your shoe, or do anything else that will remind you to pay attention. If you know the person well, say, “I truly understand what you’re saying. I’m anxious to know what happened next.”

Last, but not least: Whenever possible, avoid boring situations-and people.

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