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ADHD and communication
ADHD is associated with being poor at interpersonal communication. This can broadly be put in two buckets.
OK I know that I’ve promised to write about the benefits of ADHD, and why counterparties need to make suitable accommodations to accommodate people who have ADHD. However, as you can guess, I’ve got distracted and I’m writing about something else.
This morning I happened to tell my wife that I need to write about “how ADHD can be useful”. She started talking about how she makes use of my ADHD. Now, the specifics of this I’ll write about later. However, there was something she said that I found interesting - there were certain aspects of my ADHD-related communication that she found useful, and other kinds that she didn’t.
When you have ADHD, one of the side effects is that your communication and inter-personal relationships can suffer. One reason, for example, I write so much but am not so good at talking is that I can’t react very quickly (in conversations and discussions you need to be able to “think on your feet”). I constantly keep saying inappropriate things, and lashing out at people, both of which damage interpersonal relationships.
The other day, one of my oldest friends had come home and we were talking about lifting weights at the gym. “Till now I’ve never done squats carrying weights on my shoulders”, he said. “Yeah, that’s rather evident looking at your legs”, I replied (he was wearing shorts that day). There was no offence I meant (and he’s known me long enough to not take offence), but having observed the shape of his legs and correlated it with what he said, I HAD to say it.
Being neuro-atypical means that you are not like most people around you. This means it is hard for you to imagine how they think, and react to different situations. In other words, empathy doesn’t come naturally to you.
So your natural instinct is to just tell things as they are, without regard to how others are going to perceive it, and whether they’ll like it at all. There might be unspoken agreements in various social situations on what you are supposed to talk about and not. These unspoken agreements are invisible to you, and so you just tell things as they are.
Of course, over the course of your life, you get enough feedback. I’m 40 now, and have lived with a lifetime of feedback on how I’ve said this or the other inappropriate thing. Some of these situations have led to big fights. I’ve written stuff on my blog that shouldn’t normally be put in writing. However, what is hard for people to understand is that it’s difficult for me to make changes to the way I am.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. At several points of time in my life, I’ve decided to “make an effort” to communicate better. They’ve all remained exactly that - efforts.
The problem is I lack a dial when it comes to empathy. When I resolve that I need to be more empathetic, I end up being too empathetic, and doing things against my own personal interests. Normally I’m good at saying no. When I’m consciously empathetic I can’t say no at all. Normally I don’t read into non-verbal cues. When I try to be empathetic, I read into way too many non-verbal cues that don’t even exist (“false positives” as people in my business will say it)!
As a result, there is only so much time for which I can try and be empathetic. Soon I snap, saying “this shit is not for me”, and go back to being myself. I’ve gone through this loop countless times at least in the last 25 years. This is not without cost - that I’ve gone through this loop so many times means I’m now more conscious of what I’m like “naturally”, and think I should especially be more like myself.
This means - there are times (at least once a day) when I realise what I’m going to say is going to be offensive, but I deliberately go ahead and say it anyway. It’s like I’m overcompensating for all the times I’ve tried to be empathetic. Sometimes I even make it a point to tell things in a way that causes MORE offence.
Here are some of the things that I’ve told people I work with in the last one year:
“This code is absolutely unreadable. How did you manage to even write this?”
”Your analysis is so poor. I just can’t understand how you managed to get promoted this year”
”Why do you even bother analysing data when you clearly don’t know how to do it?”
I still stand by the content of what I’ve said, though maybe not the delivery.
It is funny that it was a couples therapist who deciphered my other kind of inappropriate communication - the part where I just lash out without really meaning it. “The problem is that you feel violated that people are not able to understand you or listen to you”, she had said, “and this frustration builds up and you just lash out”.
This also happens rather frequently, though in most of the cases I don’t really mean the content of what I’m saying. I have a strong sense of personal space, both physically and metaphorically. And when someone intrudes on this space, I need to react.
Again there is some “reverse psychology” at work here. There are times when I know that reacting to the violation of my personal space is “not appropriate” (by my own estimates on what is “appropriate”), and so I hold back. However the more I hold back, the more the feeling of violation builds up, and when I react, it’s against all this accumulated violation. My counterparties, having only placed the one straw that broke the camel’s back, don’t know what hit them.
This, once again, is a result of being neuro-atypical. What bothers you doesn’t bother others, and vice versa. This means people don’t understand you fully and tell or do things that you may not like without intending to do so. You don’t understand that they don’t intend to do so - again intent doesn’t matter, action does - and you react. This sets you off on a massive negative spiral.
There is also “lifetime accumulation” here. As the couples therapist told me, I’ve gone so long without people fully understanding what I’m like, I start with a Bayesian prior that people are out to get me. This means that even if the counterparties are not out to get me, even the slightest hint of violation of my space makes me believe that they are (I’m not writing the maths here). And I react accordingly. And say inappropriate things in inappropriate manners.
Spot Six (?) Differences
So what’s the difference between the above two kinds of inappropriate communication, both of which come with ADHD?
First is the intent. When you are being unempathetic, there is no intention to hurt the other person. It is my “natural game”. When I’m violated, I make an extra effort to be rude - to tell people to back off.
Then there is the tone, which may not be apparent when it’s written. Lack of empathy is again “natural game” - I’m usually speaking calmly. When I’ve felt violated, I’m usually shouting.
In general I’ve had more success (again this is strictly relative) in cutting my inappropriate communication driven by violation. Yet again that might be because saying things as they are is my “natural game”, and I might be cutting too much of my instincts to curb that.
For the benefit of new readers - I write a blog. I’ve been writing for nearly nineteen years now, with nearly 2800 posts. I write about all kinds of stuff there, both appropriate and inappropriate. It’s called “pertinent observations”, but a lot of posts are rather impertinent.
Again, this blog has been my public diary since 2004. Anything I observe, I write there. A lot of times, what I write there offends someone or the other. Most of the time, I don’t care. Sometimes, people write to me to tell me that I ought to care. Only in some very egregious cases have I made edits or taken down what I wrote.
If I think about this, this blog stems from my faster-than-normal brain and making random connections and observations. Because my instinct is to say things as they are, I just put all of my thoughts on my blog. And it would be a massive understatement to say that the blog has helped me in life.
Back in the oughts, people used to comment on blogs (now, I see just a little bit of that culture coming back to Substack - in the 2010s no one said anything to anything you wrote long form). This gave a sort of positive feedback and let me know that a lot of my observations were indeed pertinent. This helped me make new friends (it’s due to my blog that I finally started being friends with people I hadn’t shared a school with).
And then - I found my wife through my blog. In 2011, when I decided to go freelance, I found a rather massive client through my blog (one of the really senior guys there used to read my blog). I got a newspaper column thanks to my blog. In 2020, when I decided to get back to a full time job, my blog helped again. One of the interviews for the job I’m doing now went, “I’ve read your blog, so I know very well how you think. So I’m not going to ask you any questions. This time is for you to ask me questions”.
This is the big difference between the two kinds of inappropriate communications stemming out of ADHD - when you’re just being unempathetic, it can pay off in the long term! When you lash out when you feel violated, it helps absolutely no one; definitely not you.