Tame Your Squirrel Brain: Conversation Tips for People With ADD
How to live a social life without exhausting yourself or annoying everyone around you.
Hey there, you, yeah the one with 14 tabs open in Chrome with Youtube playing in the background and a game going on their phone; this article's for you. I have lived with ADD/ADHD for 33 years now,as well as raising children with it, and throughout that time I've accumulated hundreds of tips and tricks for getting through your day, not annoying people, and functioning almost like a “normal” person without medication. Now to be clear, this article is not to knock medication, I was on Ritalin for almost a decade before I joined the army and that crap works; if you think it will help then talk to a doctor. I also want to say upfront that I am of the opinion that ADD/ADHD is not a terrible condition, but instead simply a different way that your brain operates, and in many cases can actually be beneficial if you can learn how to take advantage of it.
The subject I wanted to discuss in this particular article is also the first discussion I had with my teenage stepdaughter when she was having a hard time; how to hold a proper conversation. The reason for this is because in my experience it was one of the more challenging aspects of having ADD/ADHD and unlike schoolwork, conversational skills are something you will need for a lifetime. People with ADD are often portrayed in movies as being these awkward, shy, isolated loners and that's not particularly true. A lot of us isolate ourselves, sure, but that's due to the fact that for us social interactions can be exhausting, confusing, and frustrating, not because we don't want to be around people or included. I'm an incredibly social person, and I'm in a very social work environment with tons of people, but I manage to make it work, so hopefully with a couple of these tips you'll be able to as well!
Tip #1 – Conversations Have Two Sides
I know this might seem obvious at first glance but this is THE most important thing to take away from this because it's the easiest one for people with ADD/ADHD to forget when we get excited, which is almost always. We are by nature excitable people, prone to extreme passion about whatever catches our interest, and losing interest just as suddenly. It means we can quickly soak up incredible amounts of information about our interest of the moment, that we can go into extreme detail about what might seem like an insignificant subject, and that we have a massively wide range of sometimes niche interests. The downside is that this also means that we almost always think that the first thing that pops into our head is going to be the most interesting thing to everyone else around us as well.
Now this can manifest in a couple different ways, with the most common, and irritating, one being dominating the conversation you're having and constantly shifting it to what you're interested in. Remind yourself constantly that conversations should be an even exchange and make an effort to take turns with stories, anecdotes, or whatever. Remember that the other person is there to talk to you as well, not just listen, it is not a lecture.
Try to listen to what they're saying as well, which may be hard if you're not actually interested in it. If it's truly boring the crap out of you, like it often does with me and discussions about cars or mechanics, try your best to remember a specific detail about what they're saying and then ask them to expand on it.
Don't be afraid to admit your ignorance! If it's something that they're passionate about the other person may want to explain it further to you in a way that might even pique your interest for real. They might take you out to the garage and actually show you the truck they're working on and what they're doing. Remember, your turn to enthuse is coming up and at some point you're going to be super passionate about something they couldn't care less about. If you want your friend to be receptive to listening to your 20 minute story about your D&D character then you need to show them the same respect when they're talking about their truck.
Tip #2 – Don't Interrupt, Come Back To It
Like I said above, we are passionate and excitable. Another way this can manifest is as an outburst the instant we think of something to add. It's a discussion, not a Family Guy sketch, and nobody really appreciates cutaway gags in the middle of their story. You will need to remind yourself to wait your turn and wait until there's a natural break to add your piece.
This can be unbelievably torturous for us sometimes, as one of the other downsides of ADD rears it's head here; our crappy short term memory. We are well aware that we forget things CONSTANTLY and it's as frustrating to us as it is to everyone else. Now if you couple this with the passion I discussed above you get the unique frustration of constantly feeling like you're going to forget the seemingly random thought that you have to add. It can make you zone right out and completely ignore what the other person is talking about as you stress over the fact that you might forget it, or jump right in and interrupt anyway potentially derailing and insulting your friend.
This is where a phrase I was taught a long time ago has served me and my stepdaughter very well, and that is “Going back to what you said earlier.” This is a very easy, natural, and polite way of steering a conversation back to where you can interject with what you thought of before it's lost to the depths of your selective memory. This tactic is also a subtle and encouraging way to show the other person that you're actually listening to what they were saying. Finally, if you remember that you have that phrase in your back pocket the anxiety of forgetting what you were going to say is vastly less. Sometimes you may even just let things go as you let the conversation steer itself in an unexpected direction.
Tip #3 – Look them in the “Eyes”
This is hard for everyone, not just those with ADD, it's just a bit more pronounced for us. The reason for this is that not only is it hard to look someone in the eyes but also everything around us is just so interesting. This can obviously give off the impression that you don't think the other person is worth your limited attention as your eyes visibly dart around taking in the surroundings. My advice is to take advantage of your habit to pay attention to weird minute details here and do that with the other person. Take in all the details of their face, their speech patterns, their accent, their hair. One thing I like to do if I find my attention drifting is to start imagining to myself how I would describe this person if I was writing about them. This will keep your eyes on them, give you the appearance of being interested, and also probably flatter them a little as you start to pick up things others might not normally notice.
Tip #4 – Remember One Thing, And Their Name
Second meetings with a person can be more nerve wracking than anything with someone with ADD because of our weird memory. If we don't know the other person well our recollection of them will undoubtedly be vague and muddied. On top of this we often have a wide range of interests, which leads to many different wide circles of people that we interact with and a lot of faces to remember.
So after your first conversation with someone, as harsh as it might seem, reduce them to the point that sticks out the most to you and internally repeat the name to yourself a few times. Then when you next meet the person hopefully the first thing you think of is their name and that one thing you remember about them. It could be as simple as “Oh hey Joe, haven't seen you in forever. Do you still play rugby?”. This will start the conversation on a positive note as everyone likes knowing that someone remembers things about them. Then as the conversation starts rolling our weird and wonderful memory will start pulling out other facts about them. If it's someone you're going to be interacting with a lot or are interested in, you'll flesh out your mental picture of them a lot more anyway and it won't be an issue.
Tip #5 – Conversations Are Exhausting, Have Them Anyway
Like it says in the title, being social is an exhausting process sometimes, full of anxiety and unspoken rules. It can be very tempting to just buy into the awkward loner stereotype and isolate yourself so you have more energy for all the hobbies you have on the go. Please don't. Remember that you are an incredibly passionate individual with varied interests that other people will appreciate if you allow them to. Also remember that there's a whole world filled with people just the same as you and that you can learn from them, or find new things to latch onto and pursue.
I am very much into the lore of the Warhammer universe, and it's an interest that I've managed to sweep the whole family up in. I would never have discovered Warhammer in the first place if I hadn't let a friend talk me into going to work a country music festival that I was absolutely not interested in. It was there I met a guy who talked me into trying it out and sold me my first models. I wouldn't have met them or done that if I hadn't joined the rugby club; which I never would have gotten into if my high school wrestling coach hadn't convinced me. Finally I never would have started wrestling if I didn't break out of my comfort zone of reading books alone at the back of my class in elementary school. So in a very real way, if I hadn't stepped on that mat for the first time 27 years ago I wouldn't be bonding with my step-daughter over miniature painting right now, which is something I greatly treasure. My point is, take that first step and make the effort, you never know where it'll end up taking you and how many things you'll discover along the way. It's worth it, and so are you.
That will be it for now, as I know we like our information presented to us in short point form bursts. Hopefully this will help, and if you feel like you need a bit more help regarding conversational etiquette in general, please check out my friend's article on the topic here. I especially appreciated the point about “one-downing” that I had never thought of before. The next article I write up will cover the most well known obstacle for those of us with ADD; School and Work, and how I not only got through school and my training but thrived in it. I'll see you then.