ADHD and Social Awkwardness
Learn how to maintain more rewarding conversations and connections.
Posted January 24, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- False beliefs about deficits in communication can hold someone back in making and keeping friends, in relationships, and at work.
- The combination of tracking verbal and nonverbal cues can be overwhelming for neurodivergent people.
- Practical strategies for improving verbal communication include tools for entering, participating in, and exiting conversations.
- Learning how to read facial and movement cues strengthens interpersonal communication in all areas of life.
Do you ever wish that you could pause time, take back something you said, and start over? Would you like to be someone who has quick comebacks in conversations instead of thinking of something good to say 10 minutes later?
Typical elements of conversation and communication can be tricky for people with ADHD or other neurodivergent individuals. You may interrupt or speak too quickly, or space out unintentionally and miss key elements of a conversation. Perhaps you have difficulty processing information or feel insecure about what you might say. Learning some useful techniques for listening and speaking more effectively can help folks with ADHD improve their interpersonal skills and reduce social anxiety.
Many people with ADHD walk around weighed down by false beliefs about social expectations. These false beliefs about your deficits in communication probably hold you back in making and keeping friends, in relationships, and at work. Common assumptions include:
- Most people, except myself, have control of their words, actions, and emotions.
- Everybody understands the unspoken, unwritten, and often mysterious rules of social engagement except myself.
- Other people do not feel as awkward as I do.
In fact, many people, whether they are neurotypical or neurodivergent, face challenges in all of these areas. It’s just that folks with complex ADHD (ADHD and a co-occurring condition) tend to struggle more often and more intensely with issues related to communication: conversational abilities, meeting new people, and understanding the nuances of nonverbal signals they do not.
Some neurodivergent people might prefer more direct communication. Others might prefer communicating through art or story. Many prefer social opportunities where they aren't pressured to make eye contact, speak in front of others, or manage group dynamics. Sometimes they prefer to take breaks and then go back to the conversation. Just because you may approach social communication differently than somebody who is neurotypical doesn't mean that your approach is wrong, deficient, or inappropriate. It depends on your goals for connections with others and your effectiveness at communicating your thoughts and feelings. Let's take a more compassionate approach and explore how you could become a more confident and skilled communicator.
Verbal communication can be difficult enough on its own, but when we also need to track nonverbal cues, like posture, tone, and physical proximity, social interactions can feel overwhelmingly hard. For neurodiverse folks who tend to be quickly overwhelmed by sensory, environmental, and interpersonal information, you probably would benefit from strategies for improving your skills in both of these areas.
5 Verbal Communication Tips
- Entering a conversation: When asking to join in on a conversation that’s already in progress, be friendly and respectful. Listen and observe before communicating, so you can understand the subject that is being discussed and can get a sense of what’s happening emotionally among the participants. Although it might seem frightening, be yourself. Authenticity is far more important than pretending to be someone you are not. It’s tough to maintain the facade and chances are very good that you will stumble.
- Starting to engage in a conversation: Ask questions, but don't feel the need to conduct an interview. Plus, it might come off as dominating the conversation. Practice pausing before making any responses or judgments. Consider validating the other person's concerns or experiences and not minimizing them. If you miss something or get distracted, that's okay. It happens. Try to come back slowly, by first listening to assess what’s happening. It's okay to ask someone to repeat something for clarification if needed.
- Participating in a conversation: It helps to reflect back part of what you hear, which validates the other person (they feel heard) and helps you remember parts of the discussion. Try using a mirroring statement, such as “So, what you’re saying is...” or, a summarizing statement, like “Oh, wow. You just got that new job!” This reflection will also help compensate for potential wandering attention because you are sharing some of the details you heard (even if you’ve missed others). Avoid giving directives. No one wants to be told what to do. It’s best to gently suggest or ask about a way of doing something instead of telling someone how they should act. For example, instead of saying, “You should ask for a promotion or find another job,” try rephrasing to use a softer approach, such as, “Would you consider asking for a promotion? Maybe it's time to look for another job.”
- Monitoring the conversation: Pace yourself. Notice your communication speed and whether it seems to work well for the other participant(s). Would talking faster or slower be a helpful adjustment? Their facial expressions might help you monitor their reactions and determine whether you need to make a change or take a little pause. Remember, effective communication is a back-and-forth process where participants take turns speaking and listening. Be mindful of how others respond to you to help the conversation flow smoothly.
- Exiting a conversation: Remember, it's okay to leave at any point during a conversation if you feel uncomfortable or would find a break helpful. When you're ready to leave, it might help to keep it quick and simply communicate your need to leave: “Great to see you again! I’ve gotta run. See you soon.” Likewise, when someone expresses a need to exit the conversation, respect their needs and avoid prolonging the conversation.
4 Nonverbal Communication Tips
- Body language and facial expressions: Neurotypical people often express interest and engagement by expressing openness and calmness, with a relaxed posture and eye contact, or by leaning forward. They often express judgment and discomfort by appearing more closed off, with crossed arms or legs, or by looking away. This might also be true for people who are neurodivergent, but some might express themselves differently, which is okay. It's just something to be aware of. Practice pausing and being mindful of what the other person(s) may be expressing through their body language, or what your body language might be signaling them. However, don't draw conclusions from body language alone if you're not as familiar with an individual, as it can present differently for different people.
- Physical proximity: Keeping a physical distance of about three feet apart is normally accepted as appropriate in most Western cultures, with hands and body parts kept to yourself. Consent would be expected for any closer distance or contact, especially given varying levels of COVID concerns. It's also important to be mindful that some people are highly sensitive to touch and/or can find hugs, for example, to be uncomfortable or painful. If that's you, don't feel pressured to engage in any interaction that would cause you discomfort. See if you can come up with a fun handshake, wave, or hello/goodbye phrase instead.
- Volume: How loud are people speaking? Are you speaking louder or quieter than the people around you? Can you hear yourself? Are you inside or outside? Practice paying attention to your tone of voice as well. Find a buddy who can remind you to reflect on your volume or tone with a subtle, pre-arranged cue.
- Movements: It's important to maintain control over our body movements and personal space. Bring something small to fidget with if it helps you stay attentive and more engaged in a discussion. Take the time beforehand to prepare a seat if you prefer to sit, or stand up if you feel the need to stand or stretch. Certain body movements might be noticeably distracting to others at times. If you're comfortable with it and feel it would be beneficial, you can let people know that your body may do things that you are unaware of, are out of your control, or that help you self-regulate. You can make it clear that the movements are not about them. Remember to offer yourself some compassion if you notice yourself feeling insecure about reactions from others.
Becoming a strong and empathic communicator can take practice. Self-awareness, impulse control, emotional regulation, and working memory, among other executive functioning skills used in exchanges with others, can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent folks. In addition, differences in cultural values, social norms, and interpersonal dynamics can be challenging to interpret. With understanding, patience, self-compassion, and lots of practice, you will improve your ability to participate in conversations more appropriately and confidently.