Learning How to Listen with ADHD

women learning how to listen with ADHD

I’m learning how to listen with ADHD, all thanks to Netflix!

No but really, I have a love/hate relationship with streaming.

On one hand it entertains me while I’m on the treadmill. On the other hand, it can be a time suck that allows me to numb out and avoid my life.

The other night my husband was trying to read his Barack Obama book and I kept interrupting him to talk about the new Shonda Rimes show Bridgerton.

Little did I know that my relationship with Netflix would give me so much insight into my relationship with my husband…

I want an Apple TV back here so I can stream all my shows.

You don’t need another Apple TV to do that. You can use the peacock.

What’s the peacock? 

(Closes his book and looks at me.)

See that little box? You use this remote.

I’ve NEVER seen that remote before in my LIFE!! 

Change it to HDMI 1, and then voila, all the streaming channels are there.

Why did you never show me this before? I’ve been lying in bed at night with nothing fun to watch for months.

I did tell you. In fact, I showed you several months ago. You just never listen to anything I say.


I don’t recall entire conversations with my husband and he has to repeat himself constantly.

That’s the thing with listening…it’s hard to tell if we’re doing it well. 

We all have this relationship with listening where we want to be HEARD but we don’t do a good job of listening to others.

This is not just an ADHD thing, it’s a human thing.

People are bad at listening

All humans want to be seen and heard. But I’m starting to realize that listening, or not listening, is the basis for much of the conflict in our relationships.

Listening is hard for everyone. Adults, children, dogs. But the executive function challenges of ADHD make listening even more challenging.

This is not a surprise to anyone, but I was curious about why and how this difficulty shows up day-to-day.

So I asked some of my twitter followers, “Why is listening so damn hard?”

This is what they told me:

  • – Can’t follow the topic/thread of the conversation, mind wanders
  • – Worry about saying the right thing, social nuance
  • – Sensory issues – ambient noise, chewing, multiple voices, volume
  • – A word/comment sends us down a separate thought spiral
  • – Our mental chatter, is LOUDER than the person speaking
  • – Feeling impatient, jumping ahead to what we think is coming, getting bored

Obviously, ADHD makes it much more difficult to listen, really hear, and respond appropriately.

Never fear – I’ve come up with some options for those of us who want to work on our listening skills.

It’s not about you

First I want to be really clear on this point. Listening isn’t about YOU.

Read it again for emphasis.

When someone is telling a story, your brain inserts you into the story. We picture ourselves in the same situation and experiencing the same things.

The human brain loves to make meaning of things and fill in the blanks. But when we insert ourselves into a person’s narrative we’re also creating our own interpretation and mental chatter.

Sometimes we get impatient, and assume that we know where the conversation is headed.

If your mind is rushing through the conversation, formulating a response, you aren’t really listening.

Start to notice when you’re inserting yourself into someone else’s narrative. Look directly at the person and remind yourself this is their story, and your brain’s predictions might** not be entirely accurate.

The thought spiral

There are times when a single word sends your brain down a rabbit hole and you can’t concentrate after that.

I’ve written on the negative thought spiral that many of us deal with.

Sometimes the thought spiral isn’t negative, but more inconvenient. It’s very difficult for the brain to stay present and neutral continuously, no matter how much practice you have.

 The self-talk that most adults rely on to keep them centered isn’t as effective in our brains. So you might get stuck in a thought loop triggered by some interesting detail of the conversation.

The ADHD brain makes connections between seemingly unconnected things, and the ability to hold onto a “good” thought is limited because of our working memory issues.

The best thing you can do is notice the thought spiral as it’s happening. That awareness can bring you back into the present. If you’re able, pivot your attention for a moment to the person in front of you.

Avoid giving advice

You might be tempted to give advice when you are struggling to listen.

I notice this in Facebook groups and social media a lot. Your brains get uncomfortable when there’s silence, or when someone is hurting. So your instinct is to jump in and offer your advice and support.

When you’re mentally or physically fatigued it’s easier to tell the person what to do than to continue listening.

The real magic is in holding the silence and allowing the person to think without your input.When someone is venting, often they will talk until they come up with their own solutions. You need only offer encouragement.

When it comes to sharpening your listening skills, you’ll have to get more comfortable with pauses in the conversation.

Quick tips for listening

  • Let it be about them
  • Don’t insert your own stories
  • Don’t form a response immediately
  • Try to understand where they’re coming from
  • Don’t have an agenda, or try to change their mind
  • Acknowledge and validate the person’s feelings
  • Ask them how they’d like you to help

Listening isn’t about self-criticism or guilt. It’s more about awareness and reminding yourself that everyone wants to be heard.

It’s a little like playing an instrument. The more you practice the easier it becomes. If you stop practicing, or you refuse to try, you’ll never become a skilled musician.

Learning how to listen with ADHD is possible. The better you get at listening the more you will HEAR. And that’s when your life really begins to expand.




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