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How to hold a meaningful conversation: a guide for neurodiverse adults

Updated: Mar 22

Have you been in a conversation that abruptly and awkwardly ended?

 

Have others mentioned that you take over conversations and focus only on your interests? 


Are you looking for ways to deepen a new friendship? 


If so, this blog post is for you.


I will explain the reasons why holding a conversation can be difficult and share 3 specific techniques you can use today so that your next conversation is meaningful. 


Why is meaningful conversation important?

If you find holding conversations difficult or wish to deepen surface-level relationships, you are not alone. 


In today’s world, where we are so "connected" online, many of us feel more disconnected from others than ever before. This is a stark reality.


Meaningful connection is part of what makes us human, provides purpose to our lives, and is a key ingredient to the recipe for a long-lasting life. In fact, a recent study found,


47% of Americans feel that they do not have meaningful connections. 

For the neurodiverse community, extra effort is often required when forming and maintaining relationships. Additionally, holding conversations, and the way we build meaningful relationships can also be difficult waters to navigate.


I can relate. A few weeks ago, I was at a party, chatting with someone I don't know well, having a basic, surface-level conversation: "How's work? Did you see that game? Any plans for tomorrow?"  


I could see it coming...our shallow conversation was drying up. Then, silence. We ran out of stuff to say.  


I internally panicked and searched for something to fill the void. While my mind raced, the person made an excuse about needing to use the bathroom and walked away. 


Ugh. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl. I feel like I missed a chance to deepen our friendship.


Do you struggle to initiate or hold meaningful conversations?

  • Yes.

  • No.

  • Sometimes.


Understanding the Challenges

Navigating social interactions can often pose a unique set of challenges for neurodiverse individuals, particularly those with ADHD or autism. The art of holding conversations can become a complex puzzle where the usual rules and cues are not always clear or easy to follow.


One of the primary hurdles faced by many neurodiverse adults is the difficulty in reading and interpreting social cues and body language


These non-verbal forms of communication, which often set the tone and direction of a conversation, might not be as apparent or understandable to someone on the autism spectrum. This can lead to misunderstandings or missed opportunities to connect on a deeper level.


Moreover, many neurodiverse individuals possess intense interests in specific topics. While these passions are a source of joy and expertise, they might not always align with typical conversation topics. This difference can make it challenging to engage in typical small talk or to switch topics fluidly, potentially leading to one-sided conversations or a struggle to find common ground.


Sensory sensitivities are another aspect to consider. Common social environments with sounds, lights, and people, can sometimes be overwhelming. This sensory overload can make focusing on a conversation difficult, affecting the ability to participate fully and comfortably.


Individuals with ADHD might face additional challenges such as a lack of impulse control (an executive function skill), which can cause people to interrupt or rapidly change topics. This might disrupt the flow of conversation, making it hard to establish a steady dialogue. 


Similarly, difficulties with attention can lead to challenges in following a conversation for extended periods. The mind might drift, causing important parts of the discussion to be missed, and making it hard to respond appropriately.


By understanding these challenges, neurodiverse and neurotypical people can practice and create supportive environments for meaningful conversations. Let’s explore strategies that facilitate better communication and connection for everyone. 


white male with long, dark hair, standing in front of a green background, wearing a black jacket

How to hold a meaningful conversation: a guide for neurodiverse adults

There are three key ingredients to starting and maintaining meaningful conversions. Whether someone is neurodiverse or not, these guidelines will improve the way one communicates. 


Determine your core values

Start by determining what you value most in a friendship. Take the time to jot down 3 to 5 core values that you and your future friend will share. These could include:


  • Connection

  • Sense of humor

  • Empathy

  • Curiosity


Take Tim for example. Tim struggles with oversharing and commandeering conversations. This leaves others feeling unheard and as if Tim doesn't care what they have to say. Along with his adult executive function coach, Tim developed a list of 3 core values: kind, adventurous, and supportive.


Now, when Tim enters a conversation, he considers if he is being the person who exemplifies his core values.


Plant seeds and build bridges

At the start of a conversation, plant seeds. In other words, ask questions that can grow into detailed responses. Seed are simple questions that usually begin as small talk. Here are a few examples: 


  • How was your weekend? 

  • Did you see the game last night? 

  • How is work going? 


Once a seed is planted, build a bridge. Listen for connections between their response and your life. 


“Don't worry about being the most interesting person in the room, just try to be the most interested person in the room.” - James Clear

Did they do something over the weekend that you have done before? If so, share that. If not, ask an open-ended question about it while avoiding yes or no questions. Instead of, “Did you like the movie?” Ask, “What did you think of the main character?” An easy way to create an open ended question is to start your question with "Why," like so:


  • "Why did you like the movie?"

  • "Why are rom-coms your favorite genre?"


The key to building bridges is listening carefully, which brings us to the next tip: show you are listening. 


Show You Are Listening

Active listening is essential for meaningful conversations, yet it poses unique challenges for those with ADHD or autism. 


For individuals facing sensory processing issues or social anxiety, choosing a calm, less stimulating environment can significantly ease conversation. Simple mindfulness techniques can also help in staying present and focused.


Non-verbal cues, like nodding, maintaining appropriate eye contact, or mirroring emotions through facial expressions, are key in showing engagement.


For those with ADHD or autism, these gestures can be tailored to personal comfort levels, like focusing on a speaker's forehead instead of direct eye contact, to convey attentiveness without overwhelming themselves.


Incorporating small acknowledgments such as "mm-hmm" or "I see" can also indicate active listening. These should be natural and authentic, aligning with your communication style. 


Adapting these strategies helps manage individual challenges, leading to more engaging and comfortable conversations.


Develop a Toolbox of Genuine Questions

A key to deepening conversations is having a well-equipped toolbox of conversation starters. The idea is to use open-ended questions that invite responses, followed by thoughtful follow-up questions to keep the conversation flowing.


Below is a sneak peek at my toolbox. If you would a PDF version of my entire toolbox of questions, including specific body language techniques, send me an email! 


Hobbies and Interests 

  • "Besides the usual stuff, what did you do last weekend?" 

  • "What was the last book, TV show, or movie you enjoyed, and what made it stand out for you?" 

  • “If you had a full day off from work, what would you do?”

  • "Work can exhausting, how do you usually relax and unwind?"


These questions open the door to learning about a person's passions and leisure activities, providing an opening for further discussion.


Occupation 

  • “What do you do for work? What do you like most about it?” 

  • "I heard you work as a _______, what is that like?"

  • “Are there parts of your job that you don’t enjoy?” 


Building bridges in conversations is about finding common ground. Listen intently and look for ways to connect their experiences to your own. 


If they mention a hobby, like skiing or art, follow up with, "Where's your favorite ski spot?" or "How did you get into art?" This not only shows your interest in their life but also allows you to share similar experiences, creating a more meaningful and connected dialogue.


Remember, the goal of these questions is not just to fill silence but to cultivate a space where both parties feel heard and interested. It's about creating conversations that are engaging, insightful, and, ultimately, rewarding.


Tell me more

Another easy tip to extend a conversation is to use the phrase "tell me more" after they share something about themselves or their interests. This invites them to dive deeper into a topic.


Remember, most people enjoy sharing the things they are passionate about, and if you create an opportunity for them to do so, you've given them a gift. This immediately opens the door to the possibility of a friendship.


Additional Tips for Neurodiverse Adults

Being overly sensitive to stimuli when others are not is a common challenge neurodiverse adults face, especially adults with autism. Whether it be loud noises, bright lights, or discomfort from certain clothes, some techniques can be implemented to minimize stimuli and allow one to engage in conversation. 


We can’t avoid nor do we want to avoid all situations that might trigger sensory overload. However, throwing ourselves into unknown situations without any plan is a recipe for stress.


Check out these tips for handling the challenges that come with social scenarios: 


  • Learn what types of clothing are most comfortable for different social settings


  • Think and journal about what overloads your senses and creates overwhelm by writing down a list. This is a great activity to do with your executive function coach or therapist 


  • Mentally prepare yourself for a situation ahead of time by making a plan if you become overwhelmed. If you have been to the location before, identify areas where you can decompress for a few minutes 


  • Hold conversations closer to the corners of a room to minimize distractions 


  • Avoid activities that emotionally, mentally, and/or physically drain you before social settings


  • Schedule alone time to relax before and after large social gatherings 


  • Role-play conversation skills with an adult executive function coach, family member, or close friend


Mastering the art of conversation is not an easy feat. Like any skill, it takes time, practice, and dedication to improve. Remember to cut yourself some slack, be self-compassionate, and patient as you work to develop the skills of holding meaningful conversations.

 

Conclusion

As James Clear wisely stated, "Don't worry about being the most interesting person in the room, just try to be the most interested person in the room." 


The best strategies for neurodiverse adults who want to enhance their conversation skills range from understanding the unique challenges they face to developing practical techniques for active listening and engaging dialogue.


Use open-ended questions as seeds to grow deeper conversations, practice positive body language and non-verbal cues, and build a toolbox of questions to bridge connections.


Remember, meaningful conversations are not about filling silence but about creating a space where both parties feel heard and connected. For neurodiverse individuals, navigating conversations can require extra effort and understanding, but with patience, practice, and self-compassion, the art of conversation can become a rewarding and enriching part of your social interactions.


If you would like individualized support on developing social skills that will enrich your personal and professional life as a neurodivergent adult, consider signing up for a free strategy session to learn if executive function coaching is right for you.


Stay engaged


About the author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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