Asking for what you need without over-explaining.

How do you get people to understand ADHD and how it affects your needs?

I get asked this question a lot. Here’s a few ideas to help you agilize advocating for yourself in a gracious, undemanding, yet confident way.

After being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 48, I went through a phase of trying to get people to understand what ADHD is and sharing with them how it explained so much of my whole life story. People’s responses ranged from

  • “ADHD isn’t real” to i-am-enough
  • “ADHD is just an excuse – it’s BS.” to 
  • “You don’t have ADHD.  How could you?  You’ve accomplished so much.” to
  •  “I could have told you that. My kid has it and I’ve always figured you might have it.” to 
  • “I have it too! No wonder we always got along so well” 

The reactions were quite mixed. But one thing became clear very quickly.  Most people did not want to hear what I had learned about ADHD.  The bottom line is this:

Most people don’t want to understand ADHD.  And only a few really want to understand YOU in depth.  Most people only want to know precisely what you want or need from them.  


They want you to

    • get to the point
    • ask for what you need
    • let them say yes or no, and then 
    • accept their answer without trying to persuade them to change their mind. 

It became clear rather quickly that if I wanted people to listen to me, I had to get to the point.  People want you to clearly communicate what you NEED in specific terms rather than to try to get them to understand ADHD.  They don’t care about ADHD, they care about you and their relationship with you (hopefully.)

Even a lot of doctors simply don’t get ADHD and even they don’t want to take the time to understand your life and how it affects you.  Most people don’t want the details about your conditions, illnesses or even the reasons why you are asking them.  Better to not explain and only share details and reasons if  they ask.  

Example 1 – Being Late

If you are going to be late, or have to reschedule something, most of the time, people just want you to give them as much notice as you can and say something like:

“I’m going to be 20 minutes late.”  

and then ask them a relevant question like:

“Can you wait?”  or “Would you rather reschedule?”   

If they really want to know why, they will ask you. Most of the time, people just say “Thanks for letting me know.”   

Generally, the less you explain, the more respect and appreciation you get.  

Example 2 – Deadline Extension

“I need an extension on the deadline for ______.   Can you give me ___ days or weeks?”  

Pause and let them think about it and respond before you share any more details. Do whatever it takes to remain silent and let them think — even if you have to count to 100. 

They might just say “No problem.”  and you are done.  I was stunned when I first started practicing this that 90% of the time people have no problem with you asking for more time.  It’s the explanations (or excuses) that drive them crazy.  

Explaining Invites Judgement and Debate

When you explain it feels to people like you are asking them to approve of your reasons and / or needs. They then caught up in the details of your life and actually distracted from making a decision about whether or not they can accommodate you (e.g. give you more time, or reschedule, etc.)

Giving an explanation or justification is like inviting people to debate the validity of your needs with you. But in reality, most people in your life are not entitled to “approve” of your needs.  Your only obligation is to ASK respectfully for what you need or want – not to get their approval of the fact that you have a need or the reason why you have the need. Once you make a request, they are entitled to decide whether or not they will accommodate your need.

If they actually do feel like they are entitled to approve of your reason, wait for them to come right out and say so. But usually when people ask why, they are just being curious. In that case, give as vague an answer as you can.  Like -“something came up” or “I have a conflict.”   Make them work for details – there are very few people in life you “owe” details to. And if they are going to use your reasons to “judge” you – don’t give them ammunition. 

Once they inform you of their decision, remember that they don’t “owe” you an explanation either.  Only in a few cases, are you entitled to debate.  Generally, you are obliged to ACCEPT their answer or ASK to negotiate.     

RULE OF THUMB:  If you don’t want to get into a debate about your needs with people, ask for what you need, and then WAIT for an answer.  

Assume you are entitled to ask for what you need  – you don’t have explain why you need it.  Whether or not you have ADHD doesn’t really matter.  A need is a need – regardless of why you need it.  

But remember, whenever you ask, prepare yourself to hear either YES or NO – Don’t assume they’ll say no, but if they do, you may ask why once, but be ready to accept no for an answer or to negotiate an alternative that works for both of you.  

Just like you are entitled to ask, they are entitled to say no to your requests. 

Why do we explain?

Most of the time, we explain because we intend /  think / hope the person will be:

  • more “understanding” of us (which is another way of saying we want their “approval” or “acceptance”)
  • more likely to say “yes”
  • less annoyed by our inconveniencing them (which implies YOU have already a) judged yourself as being annoying or b) that your job in life is to avoid ever inconveniencing other people.)

But that is not usually the result we get.  By definition, if we are explaining to “be understood” we are assuming they either won’t, or don’t, understand.  And that assumption can feel annoying to people.  Most of us can’t articulate why we get annoyed when people over-explain, but in my experience, it gets down to that in our insecurity, we somehow project to people that we don’t trust them to be generous, or accepting or understanding.  We act as though we expect people to judge us and so we explain.  In the very act of explaining, we make it almost impossible for them NOT to judge us.  

Explaining puts them in the position of “judging” your needs.  It also gives the impression that you don’t trust the person to accommodate your request just because they are considerate.  

Explaining Often Backfires – The Unintended Consequences

When you explain, it’s as if you are already sure the person will say no and are trying to make it hard for them to say no. They feel the pressure and feel manipulated. And they don’t like it.  Our intention may be to provide information they need to make an informed choice, but here’s the thing. Intentions have little (or nothing) to do with the results of our actions and behaviors.  It’s the unintended consequences that come back and kick us in the butt.  

Just because we don’t intend to be late, doesn’t mean we aren’t late, right?  Same here. We don’t intend to annoy people with our explanations, but that is what they feel. Explaining before you make a request tends to result in people regarding you as either weak, insecure and needing their approval, or as being emotionally manipulative.  It opens the door and invites them to judge you.

Is that what you really want?  If not, ask for what you need and be ready for either a yes or no answer. If they say no, depending on the situation, you can:

  • accept it and suggest an alternative solution.
  • ask them why
  • ask them to suggest a compromise or alternative option
  • thank them for their consideration. 
  • consider opening up a negotiation discussion
  • if their refusal is not acceptable to you, you might consider letting them know the impact of their refusal on your relationship. But be careful about this. Don’t make threats you aren’t fully prepared to carry out.  If their lack of accommodation is a dealbreaker, they need to know that.   

What about if I need an unusual accommodation for ADHD?

When asking for accommodations, find ways to ask that don’t position you as “disabled” but instead as having unique needs.

For example:

Instead of saying  “I have ADHD so that means I need _______ .”

It’s more effective to say things like:  

“When I’m super-focused on getting something done, I work best when I get into a flow state and lose track of time. To get the best work from me, could we work it out so that I have a flexible start and end time to accommodate my creative process?  I do my very best work that way and you won’t be disappointed in the quality.”  


NOTE:  If timing is more critical than quality, then it’s up to you to rethink your approach.  Maybe start earlier than you normally would, or set a timer.  Either way you need to agilize a way to do what you can in the time you have and manage expectations – theirs, and most of all, your own.  Sometimes, you need to accept that you will only have time to do your “relative best” – not your VERY BEST. 

Almost every boss or client I ever asked in this way said SURE.  I want your best work, if that’s what it takes, go for it.

Another example:

  “I do better when you put requests in writing, it gives me time to think before I say yes..I don’t want to overcommit and disappoint you, could you help me out by putting your request in an email?”  

Again, the reaction is usually “No Problem.”  In fact, they often say, “Great Idea, that will help me be clearer about what I really want, too.”

Strategies like this make it hard to argue with your request – they stick to the real point, and gain you more respect.  People admire when you factually and clearly just ask for what you need without explaining too much why you need it. 

How might you experiment with this agile way of asking for accommodations to your unique needs?   

11 thoughts on “Asking for what you need without over-explaining.

  1. Thanks for this article. I find I explain things maybe too much. The reasons for this is I take what people say literally. Eg: Tell me all about it; Let me know how you get on; Explain your reasons; then they forget what they’ve said and impose their perception that I’m passive when I’m not. I got told I’m too direct and how I need to say things in a particular way. I don’t think I have ADHD, however, there seems to be much more practical advice I can apply as an adult. I was diagnosed last yr with Asperger’s at 52 & dyslexia in 2010. I basically look for simple strategies to apply as most people who I encounter in life who aren’t wired similar to me seem to make things more complicated.

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  3. It’s been my experience – and I don’t know how many other people have shared it; I’m only speaking about what’s happened to me – that when I communicate specifically what I need in this context with people, one of a few things happen:

    – they nod at me to my face and then refuse to do what I ask
    – they tell me why they think my request is unreasonable
    – they go into a long detailed rationalization why they can’t provide what I’m looking for

    This has been consistent whether I’m asking it of men or women, across age groups and ethnicities, and whether it’s a business or a personal request.

    • it’s not been particularly my experience too but a very few times what you describe has happened to me. However, what i am concerned about is that Ariane hasn’t replied to this – yet. Because if it does happen to some people, or even just one, there must be a reason for it, why the procedure of direct asking has not worked for you so far but has and does for others and for her. I truly hope to read what Ariane replies to your problem with this technique for the sake of all of us even if, like me, we have found so much of her other work on here very interesting and spot on.

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  5. That was perfection! I saw myself in so much of it and winced a bit at seeing myself in my mind’s eye babbling some silly excuse and watching people’s eyes roll back in their heads.

    It is a bit too long to tattoo in my arm to always have in front of me. But I am printing it out and keeping it beside my desk as a reminder. Brilliant advice!

    Thank you!


    • YAY! So glad you found it helpful. The TATTOO version? Keep if BRIEF. Just say what you need and WAIT for the Answer. How’s that for a summary? LOLOL I’d like to come up with a Mantra for this baby!

  6. Wonderful, clearly written advice. I wish I’d had someone coach me in this years and years ago; I also wish I’d had this to give to people I supervised over the years, especially those who always thought that the more they went on the more effective the argument!

    A friend in years back once noted that sometimes we seemed to be apologizing for taking up earth space and breathing; another that our presentation – of anything- made people think we couldn’t possible be right. It’s about respecting yourself, your own right to private matters, and also about – in discussing the way of assigning tasks – proactively offering not another problem for someone else to deal with, but a solution. And probably the biggest thing is learning to shut up! we as a group tend to be good at reading others’ reactions; this is not the place to do that. ( I do remember – proudly this time – on counseling a talented woman in trouble at work – who was probably one of the most nonstop yakkers you could meet – that she had to learn to stop arguing and talking and simply listen, because I could see that her boss simply got more and more wired as she went on)

    Also, for those many of us who have a hard time asking others for anything, whether they are bosses or subordinates, or who are fearful that if our deep secret ( that we can’t handle normal distractions “normally” and so often get behind in routine tasks) this just clarifies something it took years to get to – and even then couldn’t articulate so elegantly.

  7. Great article, Ariane!
    And so true – especially “Don’t apologize for your needs”. It can be tough to get your brain (or ego) around that, especially when it’s a long-standing habit. But being aware of (and then changing) the language one uses with yourself or others (especially watching out for those “second arrows” – the second half of a sentence that negates what you said in the first half) is a huge “first step”!
    Thanks for the reminders ~

    • That is the best advice I have read – ever.
      If I could just handle this appropriately my life would be so much easier. But I always take on too many tasks because I am too afraid to ask and because I am often a few steps ahead of the game. When I try to explain what I want, they get confused. They just want me to tell them what to do. But I am not the expert.

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