People with ADHD tend to struggle with the subtleties of communication. In fact, there have been studies that successfully identified ADHD based on speech patterns. Not only does ADHD impact our ability to process language, information, and conversations, it makes it extra hard for us to communicate clearly and concisely in any format.
People with ADHD also often make tangential comments in conversation, or struggle to organize their thoughts on the fly.addrc.org
Aside: This isn’t an excuse for poor communication. As a general rule of thumb, you won’t read, hear, or see me use ADHD as an excuse for not doing something well.
Despite having disruptions to language processing, a shorter working memory, and a tendency to make connections that don’t make sense to other people, I have seen people with ADHD operate as some of the most effective and efficient communicators across very large teams.
Regardless of the industry, you’re in, or the skills you have, communication is one of the fundamental skills you need to be successful.
I’m including some jump links in here in case you want to skip the personal part of the content and get to practical and applicable tips. I’ve included more about my personal struggle with communication because there are some very common traits and behaviors for people with ADHD that I didn’t understand were common until recently. Things like being hard on yourself, hearing feedback as harsher than it really is, and constantly chasing the good feeling that comes from being good at something/everything.
I’ve never had an affinity for writing. Too many rules. Too time-consuming. Too many other things to do. I went to school for advertising which was part of the journalism school. Everyone who went through journalism school was required to take a standardized test focused on writing in English. I failed.
I ended up having to take a class specifically focused on prep for this test, studying a lot, and passing.
One of my first “big boy” jobs was as a social media manager where I created blog posts and social clients for 10+ clients at a time. I wrote somewhere between 2.5k and 5k words on an average day. Being a competitive person, I was happy to see my content perform well. As someone who is a bit of a perfectionist, I was incredibly frustrated to get feedback about the quality of my writing in terms of grammatical errors.
I ended up making my own list of bad habits and feedback I had received and forcing myself to recheck my work until it became “muscle memory” and the errors/mistakes faded away.
I ended up picking up some contract work with a site called InsideHook. The editors were very passionate about their brand and the voice of their brand, and I struggled for a while to figure out why the audience would love something like a matt black special edition Jaguar but wouldn’t care about a custom paint job on a common BMW.
As a result of how much I hate struggling, I dove deep into brand, audience, and voice.
As I moved into leadership roles, internal communication became more important. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I’m very competitive with myself and I like to be good at things. I’m gone through a long list of feedback I’ve received over the years and put together a highlight reel for you.
When you have ADHD, it’s easy to say one thing and mean another. It’s also easy to be misunderstood because you don’t realize that your communication style is hard to follow. I know that I also tend to communicate and move on which results in me not remembering most of what was communicated. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember that I did communicate *something* with a high level of confidence.
You might use a lot of words when you speak because you’re trying to explain everything all at once or give too much information in one go. You may forget to explain things that seem obvious, oversimplify too much or use a tone with someone that makes them feel bad instead of understanding what you’re saying.
To combat some of these things, I highly recommend that you leverage written communication for bigger ideas. This gives you a chance to evaluate and rebuild the structure of what you’re trying to communicate and clear out any noise that made it into your message.
When you’re in a live conversation, I have a few go-to strategies:
- Keep a notepad or notes app available and communicate to the other people that you’re taking notes. This helps slow down the pace of the conversation and gives you a chance to ask for clarity instead of having to assume something later on.
- Turn your idea or statement into a question. “Would it be correct to say….?” “In practice does that mean…..?” “Have we considered …. yet?” This keeps you from seeming presumptuous and helps fill in the gaps for you and others,.
- Before a conversation ends, ensure everyone is aligned on what all of the talking means for the next steps. Who is doing what? What are the expectations for a follow-up? What decisions do we need to communicate and to whom?
This is where your ADHD can come in handy. You’re trying harder than everyone else to stay focused and on-task, but people keep chiming in with semi-related or nonrelated things. You will likely be the first person to notice the conversation digressing so you can be the one who gives it some structure. By doing this, you’ll make your own communication very clear and stand out as a leader in the group.
I can’t explain how grateful I am for the invention of threaded conversations and comments. When it comes to asynchronous communication tools, I don’t think there’s a way to keep multiple people on topic within a single dimension e.g. Slack channel.
When you start to notice new topics emerge, you can be the first to start the thread and redirect that piece of the conversation. You should also be the one to go back to the main conversation and bring focus to the original goal.
Instead of responding to something with bullet points or as a series of paragraphs — usually leaving the reader guessing at what you’re talking about — you can start with a quote of the specific content you’re referring to. It might look like this:
I’m very competitive with myself and I like to be good at things.Me a few paragraphs up
Me too; welcome to the human race Mike!
Don’t be afraid to be the person to say “This part of the discussion requires its own conversation and …[action item]”
Another thing people with ADHD tend to be good at — even on the subconscious level — is quickly determining whether or not they know the answer. I usually get uncomfortable when I start trying to respond to something I can’t confidently respond to. We’re also pretty good at quickly identifying who would know the answer.
Listen to your gut. User your impulse. Go ahead and suggest that a specific piece of the conversation be moved and owned by the right people.
You’re not shirking responsibility or being lazy, you’re ensuring the best outcome. That is winning.
Cut It In Half
If you have ADHD, you may often find yourself in long-winded conversations or writing voluminous responses. I’ve seen a pretty consistent evolution in team members over the years but I can usually identify the different stages pretty quickly.
- Someone uses a lot of words to try and make their ideas/suggestions feel more valid. People tend to struggle to find the point.
- Someone provides every piece of loosely related context to try and make the decision(s) feel like a no-brainer — but fail to state the actual problem that needs to be solved or the decision that needs to be made. People don’t understand what decisions actually need to be made.
- Someone communicates in such a direct way that it feels presumptuous and/or aggressive to those hearing/reading it.
A simple Process For Better Communication
- Start with the outcome you want to see. Write it down.
- Bullet point what needs to happen to make it a reality.
- Add the context you think is most pertinent for “why” it should happen — add links for those who want to deep dive.
- Go through and write it how you want people to hear/read it.
- Read over it and cut out as much as possible. Extra words, phrases, sentences, or context aren’t as relevant as you thought.
- Ship it.
Don’t overthink it. Trust your gut. Remember that our brains process things quickly so we don’t always need to understand why we’re leaning towards one decision or another. If it feels unnecessary delete it. If it doesn’t make sense, add the context it needs. Move on and ship it. Get feedback, and work to improve.
Was this content helpful to you? Do. you wish there was more? Did it start to feel like too much? Please share your feedback and I’ll be sure to actually apply it.