Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Communicating ... Mindfully

If you know you have ADHD, you’re probably aware of how distractibility, impulsiveness or difficulty “keeping track” of everyday life affects you.  But are you aware of how it affects your communication style with loved ones?

To address this aspect of ADHD’s potential effect on interpersonal relationships, let’s consider a few examples:  
  • Distractibility may cause you to miss what's being said or being asked of you – or to even appear disinterested.
  • Impulsiveness and reactivity may change your tone in ways you don’t intend  –snapped responses or flares of anger  – leaving your loved one feeling hurt or confused. 
  • A busy mind drowns out the details of the conversation for a few minutes, or plans rebuttals for what it anticipates coming next, or doesn’t fully wait to hear out another person’s perspective.  
None of this is intentional, of course, but all of it influences how you come across and engage with others. 

Whether speaking or listening, we can hone our ability to communicate as we would any other skill. One proven method is through the practice of mindfulness. Think of mindfulness simply as getting out of “autopilot” – that habit of automatically acting and reacting while mentally we are somewhere else entirely.  On the outside, we’re smiling and nodding to someone but inside we’re lost in thoughts of the future, past, or anywhere our mind travels. 

 By seeking to develop a more mindful perspective, we aim to pay better attention to our conversations and to everything else we do throughout the day.  We try to respond to our life as it happens with clarity and objectivity instead of reacting with kneejerk, automatic responses. Make no mistake: It’s impossible for anyone (with or without ADHD) to be mindful every moment of every day, but practicing improves our ability to stay connected. Bit by bit, we begin to notice more consistently when we’ve “gone away”, and we bring ourselves back.

One way of building mindfulness is through a simple meditation in which we practice focusing attention, which has been shown in the lab to build that exact skill.  Taking some time – even just 10 minutes a day – to pay attention to the sensation of breathing (or eating, or walking, or one of many other possibilities) increases our capacity to attend in other facets of our lives. Without forcing anything, without aiming for any esoteric goal, we improve our ability to stay out of autopilot and be more present in our interactions. 

Despite what you might have heard about meditation, the idea is not to “eliminate thought” or even to sit still. Rather, we expect to get distracted; that’s what the human mind does, with or without ADHD involved. Whenever our attention wanders off once again (and it will), we patiently guide ourselves back, as often as needed. Perfection is not the goal but, whenever we are able, taking a moment to pause and responsively choose what we do next, any step of the day, allows for change. 

Building communication skills starts with stepping out of autopilot, becoming less reactive, and learning our own mental tendencies. With any conversation or interactions, it is typically our expectations that influence how we hold ourselves, our choice of words, and our tone of voice.  By pausing and listening instead of forcing an immediate solution, we allow other plausible outcomes to emerge.

The path of any conversation is steered by much more than our words alone. Before we open our mouths to speak we often anticipate how the discussion will go; in turn, that affects what we choose to say and how we sat it. Our nonverbal language, such as facial expression or posture, generally develops without our awareness and may tell others more about our intention than the words we choose.  For example, we might verbally offer someone an opportunity to explain, but they see skepticism etched in our faces.  Our ability to listen and respond is affected by our acute mental and physical states, as well as by years of experience through which we filter our lives.  We’ll hear things quite differently when we’re relaxed than when we’re harried and walking in the door from work.

Mark Bertin, MD
 To be clear: A communication style where you accept everything you hear and never state your needs is not the point. Communicating mindfully doesn’t involve rolling over and giving up; it means keeping your own perspective while also empathetically noticing the viewpoint of another.

Somewhere in the middle is an opportunity to listen, to creatively problem solve, to engage your child (or your spouse, friend, coworker or anyone else) in the discussion without escalating their fear. As always, underneath their anger, withdrawn sullen silence, or seeming apathy, below all of it they want what you want:  They’d like to be happy and at ease, and that’s what you picture for them as well.
A communication checklist:
  • Practice pausing and listening first. 
  • Monitor your body language and tone.
  • Monitor your expectations and any predictions of what will come next.
  • When needed, take a few breaths – or a break.
  • Pay full attention and create a situation where whomever you are talking to can do the same; stay away from other people, televisions, phones, computers, etc. while engaging in discussion. 

Adapted from The Family ADHD Solution:  A Scientific Approach to Maximizing Your Child’s Attention and Minimizing Parental Stress, by Mark Bertin, M.D. (2011), Palgrave Macmillan.  

How about you? If you have ADHD, have you ever find yourself "communicating" with your partner, child, or friend even though your mind is a million miles away?

Have you heard about Mindfulness Meditation and thought about trying it? Or maybe you already have? 

If your partner has ADHD, perhaps recently diagnosed, do you find that a mindful approach on your part, too, helps smooth communications?
Please share your strategies with being present in your communications with loved ones.


  1. Communicating with 'strangers', succeeds better than communicate with my own family. In conversation with a stranger, I work very hard to listen, not dreams. That takes a lot of energy. After conversation, I am very tired.
    But talking with my husband and other family is more problematic. Because I am more meself: impulsive, daydreaming. Your tips on the end are good for me: Practice pausing and listening first. Thank you.

    1. Hi Roos,

      You've perfectly described the situation for many people with ADHD. It takes much "cognitive energy" to stay focused in communications. And many people with ADHD feel like they can relax when they cross the door into their homes. Yet, that is where the really important communication really takes place.

      For many, the medication does help this. And so can the mindfulness strategies (though often they work better once medication is on board).

      take care,

  2. Thank you for posting this, Gina. It's very much what I needed to read and think about at this time.

    1. You're welcome, Raksha. These days, it seems we *all* need to pause a bit before reacting, especially around the political discourse -- or what passes for it...lol!


  3. I find that deliberately keeping eye contact helps when talking to one or a small group of people. Another trick while in a big meeting is to take notes of what is being said, and people's body language as an indicator of atmosphere.

    1. Yes, eye contact can help. Unless the person has a wart on the end of his/her nose, and then it's so easy to get distracted. ;-)

      Thanks for sharing,

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  5. With my girlfriend, I have been requesting that we slow down the conversation in intensity, speed and shortening the length of comments. As an someone with ADD, I find myself purposefully zoning out as a defense mechanism when I am overwhelmed. I'm very sensitive and somewhat aggressive when it comes to a heated argument so I have advocated that the approach is half of our battle. This has strengthened the relationship that we have today.


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