Impulsive speech can be a challenge for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A quick chat around the water cooler at work can result in office ostracisation from colleagues, making the work environment an onerous place to be.

So, what causes the propensity for spontaneous, sometimes inappropriate speech? The hyperactive/impulsive aspect of ADHD can be exacerbated by a deficit of low working memory.

People with ADHD are, quite often, the ‘blurters’ in the room. A thought enters their head and, due to their low working memory, they say what they are thinking before they forget. The working memory is similar to the brain’s ‘sticky note’. It can only hold 7-10 pieces of information for a short period of time, usually 10-15 seconds – in some cases up to a minute. If you are unable to express the thought then, in all probability, after a short time you may forget which can cause frustration and impact self-esteem.

A short scenario may help understanding here. Imagine taking part in a conversation with 4-5 other people. You have something to say but it is like watching a game of tennis: you are the ball boy who never seems to get a turn to retrieve the ball.

The comment you want to make is on the tip of your tongue, but it hasn’t managed to escape your lips. You repeat the phrase in your head, over and over, so you cannot forget.

The working memory is working tirelessly, attempting to hold onto the information that is parked in the brain, waiting to be released.

Wheelies and Donuts

Your priceless comment is whizzing around the car park in your brain, popping a few wheelies and spinning some tyre-ripping donuts, waiting for the opportunity to hurtle past the barrier into the wide expanse.

Then, there is a break in the conversation. A momentary lapse of speech and you are ready to release your pearls of wisdom on the unsuspecting group.

Thirty seconds later you are surrounded by a sea of blank faces. Have they missed the point you were trying to make? Did you say something offensive, unintentionally?

While your thoughts were navigating the multi-storey car park of your brain the conversation possibly could have moved onto another topic, but you were solely focused on the comment you wanted to make as you did not want to forget it.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Hayley (31) is a carpenter. She was diagnosed with ADHD in her early twenties. She finds that her impulsive speech is one of the biggest challenges she faces:

“Speaking without thinking through has put me in some tricky situations over the years. I used to speak my thoughts out loud and upset people in the process. It wasn’t intentional but I struggled to prevent it happening.”

It seems to be a common thread with ADHD and there are approaches that could be used to help mitigate the risk to outspoken tirades.

STAR Coaching Tool

Hayley was told about the STAR coaching tool, which helps to build a foundation for a structured and measured conversation.

S = Situation. What is the current situation and what does it mean to you?

T = Thoughts. What are you thinking and what do you think would be an appropriate response?

A = Action. Now that you have managed to think of an appropriate response, speak freely.

R = Results. Was the response to the action favourable?

An extra ‘R’ can be added to the original method, which stands for ‘Reward’. If you manage to follow the previous four stages through and achieve a favourable result, then why not give yourself a virtual pat on the back or a treat of some sort to recognise your ability to think before acting.

“I heard about this method and for some reason it sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The next day, at work, I was measuring some timber for a job and always follow a simple rule – ‘measure twice, cut once’. Instead of measuring once, cutting the wood and realising I’ve made a mistake, I always measure twice. So, now I try to think twice about what I am going to say and I’ve found it’s improved my impulsive comments.’

Hayley discovered a strategy, inadvertently, that helps her manage impulsive speech and it seems to be a common issue.

What Would Mum Say?

Trevor (46) is a bricklayer who also has ADHD.

“I use a simple method,” he laughs. “I try to think about what my mum would say if she heard me. If I feel that she’d probably give me a clip around the ear, then I don’t say it. I’m successful about 70% of the time. I have to live with the other 30%!”

Whatever your method of abstaining from impulsive speech, it is clear to see that the challenges are very real, frustrating and, at times, debilitating.

ADDitude magazine provides some useful tips to avoid jumping in with your ‘size nines’ which may help. They will require practice, so it may be a good idea to carry out some conversations with close friends and family first.

The advent of online meetings, however, has an upside. For the past two years connecting virtually has become a daily occurrence. It also has proven advantageous in preventing impulsive outbursts.

Tips for Online Meetings

  • Write or type what you want to say and re-read it one of two times to ensure that what you are saying is clear and succinct.
  • When you are ready to offer your comments and/or feedback, raise your ‘virtual’ hand and wait to be addressed.
  • Use your notes to convey your response. Do not rely on memory. It helps to prevent muddled words and anxiety.
  • If you are going to start speaking with the words: ‘I hope this doesn’t offend anyone….’ STOP. It probably means it IS going to offend someone. Take some time to reflect on what you want to say. It may be more appropriate to compose an email when you have more time to make a considered response.
  • Avoid the chat box unless you have had time to read your comment prior to pushing the ‘send’ button.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed with the conversation and feel triggered into acting impulsively, take a bathroom break. Excuse yourself for 2-3 minutes. Have a drink and return with a fresh outlook.
  • Try to remember Hayley’s analogy, ‘Measure twice, cut once’. It could make all the difference to your next chat by the water cooler.