Those of you with attention deficit disorder might not make it to the end of this sentence. I had that problem as a kid, but I found ways to trick my brain into paying attention and listening properly. I’ll never be a great listener, but I get by without medication because of three simple things I taught myself how to do.
When I was young, I couldn’t pay attention in class. I couldn’t read books for long because I’d get distracted too easily. I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD, or now more specifically known as ADHD-PI) back when it was a shiny, new problem, but I was never medicated for it, and some of my friends were. At the time I worried I had a serious problem, but since nobody helped me I realised I had to figure out a way to help myself. I figured out three ways to actually concentrate and listen to people, while many of my friends gained attention through medicine.
While medication worked for some, it had some unappealing side effects for others. One friend had trouble sleeping and he became depressed. Another felt she lost her creativity and refused to take her pills. A third had great results and his grades in school vastly improved. It varied. Nowadays, many physicians and psychiatrists are finding that forms of ADHD, which can manifest itself in many ways, often doesn’t require medicinal treatment. Instead they’re finding success in a variety of other ways. Dr Mary Ann Block, author of No More ADHD, explains:
I have been successfully treating these disorders without psychiatric drugs for over 20 years. My approach is to look for the underlying medical or educational problem that is causing the symptoms and treat those instead of treating symptoms with prescription medications. Today, far too often, people are not given a full medical or educational evaluation but are, instead, given a prescription, after spending little time with the doctor. Underlying cause of ADHD symptoms can be, diet, nutritional deficiencies, allergies, Chronic strep (PANDAS), learning problems and others.
Treatments will vary from person to person, and children ought to see a specialist like Dr Block to find out what kind of help they need. Adults may need specialists as well, and you should go see one if you have serious issues. When it comes to listening problems, however, you might be able to handle it on your own. I’ve managed to do it, and it really only took three simple strategies. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed problem and just struggle to pay attention in conversations, lectures and meetings, these tips can help you too.
Use Focal Points to Lengthen Your Attention Span
You can’t block out everything, but you can remove visual distractions rather easily by learning to control the focus of your eyes. If you get distracted easily during a conversation because you happen to see something out of the corner of your eye, using focal points can help you avoid that.
First things first, you need to practice making eye contact with other people so you can do it in a conversation. If you find this difficult because you’re shy (I used to be extremely shy), do it with strangers you’ll probably never see again. You might creep a couple out, but most people won’t think twice about it. If someone actually approaches you and gets upset that you were looking, just tell them you were wondering where they got their coat or even that you just space out sometimes and it had nothing to do with them.
Once you get the hang of staring into people’s eyes like a weirdo, you can do it to people you have conversations with! Most people won’t return your eye contact when they’re talking anyway, so you just have to follow their eyes with yours. Don’t put on a creepy stare or anything — you can still be natural! Just maintain eye contact. Because other people’s eyes dart around a lot when they think and speak, it will give your wandering mind something to play with so you can listen more carefully.
Learn to Fill in the Blanks
When you can’t pay attention like everyone else, you wind up getting bits and pieces of sentences. Fortunately, most people follow similar speech patterns and say a lot of the same things. The more you get to know someone, the more you can easily fill in the blanks and guess what they have said.
Most of the time I hear the beginning of a sentence, but things start to break up from there. For example:
So did you want to ____ Mexican _____ _______ _______, or ___ ___ _____ __ ________ ___ __________ new for once?
I blanked out most of that sentence, but kept in the parts that are easy to hear even if you can’t pay attention for five seconds. Generally speaking, I’ll hear the first part of the sentence, anything coming after a pause (e.g. or/and), and a few words at the end. There isn’t much information, but I bet you can tell from tiny pieces what’s happening in this example.
Obviously, someone is asking if you want Mexican or something new. They’re probably not asking if you want Mexican people or Mexican music, because the first is a pretty strange request and the second depends on context. You’ll know if you’re in a situation where you’ll be asked about music, so you can easily figure out if that’s what the person wants. In my case, I’d easily know they’re asking about food because I eat Mexican food all the time (and because this conversation happened at dinner time). From the little information and tone in the sentence above, I can tell they’re asking if I want the thing I always want or if I’m actually willing to try something new:
So did you want to have Mexican food again tonight, or do you want to actually try something new for once?
You don’t have to hear most of the words in a sentence because you can use knowledge of yourself, the other person, your surroundings, and the situation you’re in to quickly piece together what they said from just a few words. It might take a little practice, and certainly works better with people you talk to more often, but once you get the hang of it you can usually get away with listening to only about 30% of what people say.
Ask Broad Questions
No matter how hard you try to use tricks to keep your attention and fill in the blanks, you’ll never succeed every time. Occasionally, you’ll realise you completely spaced out and have little to know idea what your friend, coworker, brother, or whoever just said. In those circumstances, you can ask a broad question to make people repeat themselves without realising it.
For example, let’s say someone tells you about their day. You know that’s what they’re talking about, but the only thing you heard was this:
…and so I’m not really looking forward to work tomorrow.
If you spaced out for the first minutes of a five minute and four second explanation about somebody’s day and heard only half a sentence, you can reply like this:
Yeah, I wouldn’t be either. What do you think you’re going to do?
True, you have no idea what you’re asking and therein lies the danger. Nevertheless, I’ve found this works most of the time for a couple of reasons. First, if someone tells you about a problem, they rarely tell you the solution because they want you to suggest one (or just listen to them complain). Second, think about all the times you and everyone who know has forgotten what they were saying after a two-second interruption, or even in the middle of their sentence with no interruption at all. The person you’re supposedly listening to might think they told you the answer to what they’re asking, but most of the time they will just doubt themselves and repeat the information.
Of course, this can backfire, but you have an easy way out of trouble:
Oh, sorry, I must’ve missed that. What did you say again?
So long as you do this infrequently, most people won’t find it horribly annoying. It also leads them to believe you managed to hear most of what they said and that’s a heck of a lot better than none of it. In the very rare cases where you still have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, that’s when you get to disclose you have ADD/ADHD and they essentially have no choice but to let it slide. Most people will forgive so long as they know you’re trying, especially if they know you and like you.
You Still Have a Problem
Surprise! You still have a problem! Everything I’ve discussed here is how I’ve tweaked my behaviour and my way of participating in a conversation to increase my attention span and listening ability. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes I just suck. That’s ok, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you end up in that situation. If it gets really bad, you can always consult a specialist.
You’ll have great days where you can listen attentively with ease and days where people could scream “the building’s on fire!” and you’d be too distracted by the pretty flames to notice. Nothing you do will cure you. No tips and tricks will take the problem away. What I’ve outlined here helped me listen better and recover from moments of distraction. Hopefully it will help you too. Regardless, don’t get frustrated when you make mistakes. You can find ways to cope if you make the effort. When you pay attention to how your brain works, you can discover ways to overcome its flaws.