top of page

Why Did I Say That: How ADHD Affects Conversation Skills

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic ✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


In the movie Emma (2020), there's a memorable picnic scene in which Emma, our protagonist with ADHD traits, ends up impulsively insulting her family friend, Miss Bates.


Moments before, one of the characters proposes a little game to make things more interesting. Miss Bates chatters incessantly, causing Emma to lose her patience and put her down harshly.


As Emma's words hang in the air, an awkward silence settles over the group. Emma realizes she went too far, and there's a hint of remorse in her eyes, but there's no turning back.


Due to core symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsivity, inattention, and distractibility, many people with ADHD struggle with conversational skills similar to Emma’s. For example, their mind might start to wander while others are speaking, and they might lose their train of thought or even say inappropriate things.


But the good news is that there are solutions to these struggles.


Being able to connect with others and navigate social situations takes learning a few tools and practicing them regularly. In this article, we'll cover:

1. Zoning Out


Zoning out, also known as daydreaming or mind-wandering, refers to a state where your attention and focus drift away, and you become less engaged with what is being said or happening around you.


If you have ADHD, you probably struggle with sustaining attention, especially for prolonged periods or when distracted by your own internal thoughts and ideas. As a result, your mind may frequently wander, causing you to "zone out" during a conversation.


Here's what you can do about it:

  • Let the person taking part in a conversation know that you appreciate them: If you zone out during a conversation, try asking the person to repeat what they said by stating something along the lines of, “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.”

  • Ask clarifying questions: Asking questions might probe more details about what they’re telling you, which can give you more context to work with in case you space out again and need to reorient yourself. It might also trigger them to repeat some of the information you missed.

  • Parroting: In How to Talk to Anyone, author Leil Lowndes suggests you occasionally repeat the last few words the person says. This way, you'll show them you're listening but also prompt them to clarify what they said, which can keep you in the conversation loop.

  • Be upfront: It’s easier for others to be patient and understanding when they know in advance that you aren’t just ignoring them or choosing not to listen. In order to be transparent, you could say, "Sometimes I space out during conversations due to my ADHD. I want you to know that I value our conversations and your thoughts, so if you notice me drifting off, please feel free to bring me back into the discussion."


2. Saying Things Impulsively


You're talking to someone at a party, and all of a sudden, you blurt out something wildly inappropriate or unintentionally rude. You didn’t mean to do it, but you might feel guilty or ashamed nevertheless.


The first step to finding some relief is understanding that it's not a lack of care that leads to impulsivity. Like many ADHD symptoms, impulsivity is caused by a mix of neurobiological, genetic, and environmental factors.

For example, it has to do with how your brain works and how signals and chemicals in the brain can affect behavior, but it can also be caused by the environment you grew up in and the experiences you had. Sometimes, impulsivity can even be inherited from parents or other family members.

Whatever the underlying cause is, some strategies can help manage impulsivity better. Here’s how you can practice becoming more aware of your impulses:

  • Keep track: Identify when you have said inappropriate things and how you felt that day. Was it in certain situations, such as at a work meeting or when you were stressed? By identifying when you're most likely to say something that’s not calculated, you might be able to prevent impulsive speech.

  • Evaluate your “impulsivity level” before joining in a conversation: If you feel agitated, take a few moments to calm your mind by doing the following breathing exercise:

    • Imagine that your breathing pattern is following the outline of a box.

    • Take four seconds to inhale, hold it for four seconds, slowly exhale for a count of four, and then wait for another count of four before beginning it all over again.

  • Slow down your speech: Remind yourself to speak at a moderate pace, allowing your thoughts to catch up with your words. You can do this by avoiding chest breathing and breathing from your diaphragm instead. Another technique is to try not to hold your breath while speaking; breathe in through your nose and talk on the out-breath.


3. Experiencing Working Memory Difficulties


Your friend casually mentions something about their past or about their family, and you reply, "What?! You've never told me that before!". They sigh, look at you, and say, "Yes, I have multiple times."


You were super focused during the talk, interested in what they were saying, and you were actively listening, but the details of that story just didn't stick with you.


One of the reasons why this happens is due to ways in which ADHD affects memory, specifically working memory.


Working memory plays a vital role in how you process information. It's like your brain's notepad or whiteboard – a temporary storage space where your brain keeps important information for a short time while you work with it.


Just like you might jot down notes on a notepad to remember something while you're focused on a task, your working memory helps you hold onto information briefly, use it to solve problems, make decisions, or carry out everyday activities. Once you're done with the task, the information either gets stored in your long-term memory for later use or fades away as you move on to other things.


It's estimated that as many as 85% of children with ADHD encounter challenges with their working memory. Moreover, these difficulties often persist in adulthood.


If you find that memory challenges significantly impact your social life, consider seeking support from a healthcare professional. They can provide personalized strategies and guidance to help you enhance your memory.


And remember that struggling with memory is a common experience, especially for individuals with ADHD. So be kind to yourself and try to avoid engaging in self-criticism.

Conclusion


Miss Bates from Emma brushed off the rude comment with a smile, but she was visibly offended. If she knew about the hidden ADHD traits in Emma, she could perhaps understand her better and not take her joke to heart.


We could all use a little compassion! So even if you don't have ADHD, it's important to raise awareness about the challenges of navigating social interactions and foster a culture of inclusivity and support.


Conversations with ADHD may have their hurdles, but with understanding, patience, and the right strategies, meaningful and engaging interactions are well within reach.


Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you improve your focus, as well as manage ADHD symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity. Take this 10-second quiz to check if you’re eligible to kick-start your journey for better brain health.


 

About the author:

Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.

About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

 

References:


Leil Lowndes, How to Talk to Anyone, Brilliance audio, 2015. Oades RD. Dopamine-serotonin interactions in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Prog Brain Res. 2008;172:543-65. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(08)00926-6. PMID: 18772050.


Bezdjian S, Baker LA, Tuvblad C. Genetic and environmental influences on impulsivity: a meta-analysis of twin, family and adoption studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Nov;31(7):1209-23. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.005. Epub 2011 Jul 29. PMID: 21889436; PMCID: PMC3176916.


Bevilacqua L, Goldman D. Genetics of impulsive behaviour. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2013 Feb 25;368(1615):20120380. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0380. PMID: 23440466; PMCID: PMC3638385.


Al-Saad MSH, Al-Jabri B, Almarzouki AF. A Review of Working Memory Training in the Management of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Front Behav Neurosci. 2021 Jul 21;15:686873. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.686873. PMID: 34366803; PMCID: PMC8334010.


Alderson RM, Kasper LJ, Hudec KL, Patros CH. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and working memory in adults: a meta-analytic review. Neuropsychology. 2013 May;27(3):287-302. doi: 10.1037/a0032371. PMID: 23688211.

Comments


The latest brain health news and tips, delivered to your inbox.

bottom of page