Learning to Listen Better with ADHD – Some Ideas to Help

Mimi Handlin, MSW - ADHD Coach for Women
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One of my clients – I’ll call her Judith – had an easy time making friends because she was outgoing, warm, and very friendly. She had a hard time keeping friends though because of her lack of listening skills. She often  interrupted when someone else was speaking.  She talked too much, not giving others a chance to contribute to the conversation. She would ask someone a question and then space out while the person was answering or check her phone. Her problem wasn’t with talking or being social; it was the listening that was so hard. Judith felt like having ADD/ADHD made it really difficult to listen when someone was talking about something that didn’t really interest her or affect her directly.

Although listening well doesn’t always go hand in hand with ADHD, it’s a life skill worth developing. Why? Because we miss out on so much when we can’t listen! If all we hear are our own thoughts, we can’t hear what our child needs to tell us or why our spouse, partner or friend is feeling sad or when a project needs to get finished. We miss out on close relationships and other pleasures of life.

I know that ADHD and constant/fast moving thoughts make it hard. Here are some strategies to try when in a conversation.

1. Take a deep breath every time you have the urge to interrupt and see if it helps you wait.

2. Ask questions so your listening is more active. Find something you are genuinely curious about, whether it’s in a class or during a conversation with someone else.

4. If you have a tendency to interrupt or say things that are irrelevant because you’re worried you’ll forget, try saying, “Would you mind if I interrupt? I just need to say something right now or I’m afraid I’ll forget.”

5. Use more of your senses than just hearing when listening to someone speak. Look for body language and expressions in the speaker and see if this helps you focus more on what the other person is saying and what they may be feeling.

Here are some interesting exercises to try that involve self-awareness and listening to things we may not usually pay attention to.

Practices to Improve Listening Skills:

1. Start to become aware of what is going on inside of you when someone else is talking. Are you impatient bored, or restless? Maybe you’re not really listening, but just waiting for a pause so you can say something. Do you suddenly realize that you’ve been zoning out and caught up in your own thoughts or worries?

See if you can notice when the act of listening takes less effort. Does it have to do with the person who is speaking? The loudness or expression in their voice? Do you listen better when there is an emotional charge to the conversation or topic? Maybe you listen well when there are hard consequences if you don’t. How does the environment affect your ability?

When you get a chance, write down your discoveries.

2. Build up your listening skills through trying the practices below. Just do them for fun and see what happens.

a. Go for a walk through your neighborhood or in nature and make a commitment to stay out of your head and listen to things outside of yourself. Depending on where you are, this could be birds, animals, children, traffic or machinery. It could be the sounds of waves breaking or leaves rustling in the wind. Listen for any surprises. When you catch yourself thinking, calmly note how far you’ve walked and then go back to listening to sounds. (It may only be 5 feet, but that’s OK!)

b. When you won’t be interrupted, listen to a piece of instrumental music you have never heard before. Maybe find some websites that are good resources for the kind of music you enjoy. Relax, close your eyes, and really listen. Can you make out the various instruments? Are there rhythms that change or repeat? When you find your mind wondering, take a relaxing breath and bring yourself back to the music.

c. If you get distracted or irritated by sounds, try a new approach. Every once in a while, take a few minutes to go to them on purpose with curiosity. Don’t label them as good or bad; just keep your ears open. Try not to identify what you hear, such as “the heater” or “the clock”. Try to listen as if you have never heard anything like it before and have no idea what it is. Sounds that were irritating may change into something interesting, musical, or funny with this kind of approach. If you can practice staying aware of what you hear without analyzing, judging, or letting your own thoughts intrude, you may be able to transfer this skill to a conversation.

I hope you find these exercises enjoyable and helpful. They are worth a try because you never know!

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