Speaking Circles® Applied to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

by Dr. Marilyn Kroplick


What is Attention Deficit Disorder?

ADD is a neuro-biological disorder with a triad of symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and, sometimes, motor hyperactivity. Primarily genetically transmitted, symptoms usually become apparent by age seven. Five percent of the population have ADD Because Adult ADD was not recognized by the medical community until the early 1990's, there are many adults recently diagnosed who hadn't previously known they'd had the condition. Many were previously identified as having learning disabilities.

Intelligence and creativity

People with ADD are of normal intelligence and often are considered very creative because their impulsivity and distractibility increases their curiosity. They have interesting ways of putting things together and often have to invent strategic and unusual problem-solving strategies to compensate for their condition. Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein are examples of ingenious people who likely suffered from ADD.


Symptoms show up in adults as poor work performance and problems with: goal setting, planning, initiating action, procrastination, sustaining motivation, organization, frustration tolerance, self-discipline, anger control, time management, self-esteem, social interactions, academics, sleep and communication.

Listening Problems

People with ADD often have poor eye contact--darting eyes, which can convey disinterest, distrust, or a lack of caring. They tend to listen selectively to the parts of a conversation that interest them, and tune out the rest. They tend to spend a lot of time in their head forming a reply. An idea may come to them when someone is speaking, yet they can't hold onto that idea and listen at the same time, so they have a need to interrupt and blurt their thought out. They have a tendency to judge on little information, to stereotype and label. They often don't receive information objectively, and have a problem with the executive function of brain which involves separating emotion from information. They have a tendency to listen defensively, judging the speaker and judging themselves as inadequate. This distracts them and may cause them to appear insincere They may nod in agreement but have actually lost attention and feel bored.

They may be dishonest in their communication because they feel beleaguered by people, especially by a partner, such as a spouse, and may agree to anything just to get that person off their back. They sometimes fabricate a response because they feel humiliated at having forgotten something that was said.

How Speaking Circles solve listening problems

Speaking Circles teach how to have better eye contact. With the speaker's time limited to 3 or 5 minutes, the listener learns to give full attention to each speaker. By not being allowed to interrupt, the listener can relax and not have to be concerned about breaking into the conversation.

Without time constraints, the listener doesn't know when the speaker is going to stop talking, so they may find it difficult to pay attention. The time constraints help the listener develop the habit of attentive listening, since the, know that the speaker will stop in a finite and predetermined amount of time.

Because of the time limit, they are able to listen to an entire piece, not just bits and pieces. Really listening brings them into the present moment, so they are less bored. Being in the present moment makes their senses more acute and gives them greater pleasure. That pleasure brings a desire for greater mastery, so it's a circular feedback loop that motivates them to want to continue improving their listening skills.

Speaking Problems

Some barriers to effective speaking that people with ADD suffer are: they often have short, disconnected thoughts, fluency problems, rapid speech, a tendency to make impulsive comments and inappropriate replies, and they are derailed easily. They have difficulty completing their thoughts, and before they know it, they're moving on to the next idea. They often use incorrect pronunciation or grammar and have difficulty finding the right word.

How Speaking Circles solve speaking problems

Speaking Circles teach the joy of spontaneity in conversation. The instruction just to receive the listeners' support limits expectation on the speaker, who begins to trust his own memory that he will know what to say. This decreases anxiety about having to remember every little thing.

The speaker experiences a bonding with the listeners, and that bonding is so pleasurable the speaker becomes less critical of himself and therefore less distracted by the inner critic while speaking, and also less judgmental of the listeners.

When speaking, they are in the present moment and in their authentic self, not worrying about how people are viewing them or how they screwed up in the past, so they want to continue to improve their speaking skills. Speaking is much more fun because they have less anxiety as they become a better speaker and a more masterful communicator of their message.

Since they know there will be only positive feedback, they feel less threatened so they become more honest with themselves as a speaker. This allows them to reveal weaknesses and vulnerabilities to themselves and to the group, which develops a greater intimacy with their listeners.

When they begin to speak, they do so without planning and they learn to speak spontaneously without worrying Some common concerns an ADD person might have prior to speaking or doing any task are: Am I smart enough? Will I remember what I want to say? Will I be appropriate? How will they like me?

In learning how to improvise, in a safe environment, the speaker can begin to learn to "think on his feet" and become more authentic. The guideline in Speaking Circles is that it's okay to be nervous, it's okay to stay silent or begin speaking. This decreases anxiety and the slows down the rush of thoughts and words. Thus, speech fluency increases.

The value of time limitation and structure

The time limitation provides structure, which is greatly needed for someone with ADD, for it breaks down the communication skills into three simple steps:


It teaches how to get in touch with the listeners and oneself, with one's body and breathing, and to get in touch with the community nonverbally by seeing into your listeners without judging them.

Time limit

This develops a greater sense of time. Individuals with ADD have a problem recalling how long it takes for a specific activity to occur. They have trouble remembering how long it took in the past, so they have trouble translating that into the present. By speaking in a structure of 3 or 5 minute periods, they learn what 3 and 5 minute intervals are. This teaches them how to finish, how to manage distractions, how to slow down, and how to stop.
It helps conquer the inner critic, overcome procrastination, pace themselves, and they learn how to take small steps, how to break some things down that might seem overwhelming into small steps, and it teaches them about being more honest with self and others.

Positive feedback

With only positive feedback permitted, participants begin to realize how they constantly judge others and themselves. With the facilitator present, making sure that there is no negative feedback, they learn how good it feels to have only positive feedback. This helps them label what, in fact, is negative feedback and to appreciate the value to both the speaker and the listener of eliminating it from the environment.

This also decreases performance anxiety because they know before they begin to speak that they will get only positive feedback. With repetition, they begin to believe in the feedback they are receiving. Because the feedback is positive, they can discriminate their own negative feedback more precisely and monitor it. They can hear their inner critic voice clearly because it's not competing with an audience of outer critics. Also, the speaker may give voice to the inner critic, which is often humorous. As time progresses, the inner critic voice diminishes.

Intimacy and self-esteem issues

ADD people need to develop greater intimacy with others. They often feel isolated and alone in their deficit and in their vulnerabilities. They've had to fit in society and keep pace with performance standards they haven't been able to meet. In Speaking Circles they can relax knowing that there is full acceptance from their listeners. The speaker can observe them listening with love, with empathy, with openness and awareness.

The value of silence

Speaking Circles allow silence to enter the world of the ADD person. Opening silently with eye contact allows them to practice the needed skill of "speech inhibition"--learning to delay acting on the strong urge to jump in and speak. They will learn to slow down and relax. And they get to spend some time reading the nonverbal communication of their listeners, or what is called in the ADD world, "the social skills cues."

Social cues

Another symptom of ADD is a difficulty reading social cues. The ADD mind, and sometimes the body, typically goes too fast to pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of others. That's also true for the listener: their mind goes too fast that they don't pay attention to the tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language of the speaker. Both miss a lot of social information and so the delay and the slowing down is helpful in improving the reading of social cues.

The best antidote to attention deficit is massive doses of positive attention.

One patient said: "This is exactly what ADD people need because you can finally listen to someone else speak--since you're going to equal time and positive attention, too.

By and large, ADD individuals are rapid talkers who may like to talk too much. When talking about a topic they are interested in, they tend to hyper-focus and become circumstantial, that is they go off on tangents and are long-winded. When they know they have a limited amount of time, they learn to finish before listeners become bored.

The video is helpful since it forces them to look at some of their areas of deficit, which they'd rather not look at, and they see positive feedback that is modeled on the tape.

About the Author

Marilyn Kroplick, M.D., is the author of ADD and Success workbook and The Impulsive Person's Guide to the Universe audiotape. She is an Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, on the clinical faculty at UCLA, and is medical director of the Center for Attention Deficit Disorder in Los Angeles, California.

© Copyright 2012, Dr. Marilyn Kroplick.