10 Essential ADD Coaching Concepts

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Another article in the The ADD Coaching Skills Series

Graphic of a man with a map, sandles & a sword about to enter a maze - in the center we see the top of a brown, furry head, with hornsMore than any other client type, the ADD client knows more about what’s going on with their functioning than their coach ever will!

The trouble is:

1 – they don’t trust what they know,
2 – they don’t know how to explain their experience, and
3 – they can’t figure out (in a vacuum) what they need to DO to become intentional with attending.

As difficult as it may be to sort things out without an executive functioning crutch (that’s you!), the last thing they need is a coach who tries to coach them “by the book” – especially if that book was written by the ADD clue-free.**

Note to Coaches who have not had at least 2 years of ADD-specific training (or 4 years of ADD Coaching): Many of you who have considerable depth in what I call “vanilla” coaching or vanilla coach training may initially have a tough time transitioning to ADD coaching — you will have to remain vigilant to make sure you do NOT use quite a few of your old standbys.  

We need to do things differently in ADD-land, for valid brain-based reasons.

Explaining exactly how to DO brain-based systems-development coaching is a topic broad enough to fill an entire book, at the very least — and several curriculums!  In a short article, I can only offer a list of bullet points and comments designed to remind us all to focus on what we need to keep in mind as we develop a game plan for our coaching sessions with ADD clients.

I don’t have room for nuance or the  neurological explanation behind why my suggestions work with ADD brain-wiring, but you will discover they DO work better for ADDers than “vanilla” skills, even if you don’t understand the fine points.

NOTE to Seasoned ADD Coaches: This article wasn’t written for you.  Consider it a training review and a reminder of some of the basics for use with your mentees.  You will, no doubt, discover that you have tweaked some of the points below.

All seasoned coaches develop their own style of coaching over time, a product of experience so carefully crafted it feels like instinct.  Most of us do what we do because that’s what works with our own ADD challenges and, not coincidently, what we have found to be effective with the clients we attract.  

I hope you will agree with me, however, that the points below are fundamental for coaches who don’t yet know enough about ADD, or have insufficient experience with ADD coaching, to tweak appropriately.

The Ten Important Points

Once you have some experience with the points below, pick and choose carefully, based on the flavor of your own ADD and that of your clients, which make sense “out of the box” and which need a bit of tweaking to work for your clients.  

Don’t skip blithely over them, however.  It’s one thing to choose to forgo one of the points; it’s quite another to drop them out unintentionally.  Your coaching will become less effective with every point you overlook.  Drop out a bunch and, whether you intend it or not, you will have violated one of the fundamental tenets of any helping profession: above all, do no harm.

The relative importance of the points below will vary, depending on your client’s “flavor” of ADD and the extent to which you, the Coach, must compensate for personal ADD Challenges (since many of the very best ADD Coaches have ADD themselves, learning how to compensate for your own ADD challenges is basic training).

1. NO make-wrong, NO shoulds, NO ego projections

Drop all judgments  from your vocabulary and sanitize your come-from to rid yourself of “vanilla” coaching concepts like adrenaline addict, restorative, insufficiently motivated, resistant, using ADD as an excuse, afraid to try, at the effect of a belief, etc.  Don’t even entertain the idea that MIGHT be what’s going on.  Unless you have a comprehensive brain-based, ADD-training background and coach ADD at the SCAC/MCC  level (whether you are officially certified or not), 99 times out of 100 you will be dead wrong.

Drawing of a lit matchDon’t learn about fire with your client’s hand.

When they wince (metaphorically), stop what you are doing and listen.

Listen from Belief.  

Let go of your theories and all of the things you have been taught to listen for and really listen to what your client is trying to tell you.  Don’t listen “to ‘up-language'” – can’t doesn’t mean won’t. It’s a clue.  

Don’t teach your clients to hide the clues from you!

To those who don’t r-e-a-l-l-y understand ADD, ADD Coaching technique is counter-intuitive.

Listening from Belief, Normalizing and Endorsing are among the foundational skill-set for ADD Coaches. The less you understand about ADD, the more you need to focus on those three skills and the faster you need to refer ADDers if you don’t understand the brain-based reasons they do what they do.  Understanding brain-based concepts is the only way to know what helps, and what hurts.  

Refer ADD clients to a coach with more ADD-specific training the minute you suspect you might be thinking they are uncoachable – or hire an experienced ADD Mentor Coach to help you discover just how coachable they ARE.

[ADD Coaching Hint: Recontext uncoachable by shining the flashlight on your own skill-set.]

2. Minimize Distraction Potential

There will always be exceptions to the “rules” below, of course.  But thinking of them as Rules will help you to make sure they are RARE exceptions.

Make sure you and your family understand that your ADD clients cannot accommodate even ONE “quick interruption” during your coaching hours because they are big-time distractions for an ADD client.  Your office or  “coaching spot” needs to have a door you can close and a sign on the door that says you are in session.

  • Let everyone know when you’ll be available again on that sign.
  • Make sure everyone knows that when you are “in session” they can’t even knock unless it there is an emergency involving blood, fire or flood.
  • Kill the radio or TV playing in the background – even if you think it couldn’t possible be heard over the phone.
  • If you can’t coach from a quiet place somewhere else, skip the week when the construction crew will be there.

Watch out for cognitive distractions too. Don’t change the subject suddenly, add items to the agenda just because you don’t want to forget to tell them some helpful suggestion about something else, or take a side-trip to schedule their next appointment in the middle of a session.

[ADD Coaching Hint: You need to compensate for erratic EF, not mirror it.]

3. USE the Client Prep Form

Send the ADD version of the Client Prep form in your Welcome Packet and include the fact that you will use it each session with the rest the things in your Policies and Procedures document.  This tool is more than a map for weekly accomplishment – it provides structure, rehearsal, chunking, outside accountability, evidence of success, and a whole lot more.

Expect that you will have to COACH it’s usage – most assuredly for much longer than you think it “should” be necessary, and maybe every single session until the client has internalized its structure.  Keep blank ones at the ready.  Whenever they don’t send it, fill one out on the fly (which might mean every single time, with some clients, and you have to be OK with that.)

[ADD Coaching Hint: The best come-from: no big deal, just how its done.]

4. Be intentional with YOUR attending – focus manifests

Focus on what you want to increase. Endorse ANY attempt, celebrate any completion in the neighborhood of the goal, point to past successes if there’s truly nothing to endorse this week (look more closely – that’s NEVER really the case) – then endorse the fact that they’re still getting back on the horse.

If you can’t do this with authenticity (or believe that it’s patronizing) you really don’t know enough about ADD and need more training before you are ready to work with ADDers.

[ADD Coaching Hint: major players here are focus, registration, and dopamine receptors]

5. Be prepared to take notes

If you multi-task to focus, it MUST be a task at or very near your coaching spot so that you are able to take notes — unless you need to pace for focus, in which case, use a clipboard.  Make sure you have a pen and something to write on before they call.

Somebody needs to have a scorecard to tell the players apart!  Especially with verbal processors, unless your audial processing and short-term memory are  excellent, you’ll need all the help you can get to follow the plot and keep the session on track.

[ADD Coaching Hint: another good use for a blank client prep-form at the ready, especially when they don’t send one before the call – which will probably happen often.]

6. Take the shame off “overpromising”

What I Meant to Accomplish but Didn’t is simply “what’s so.”

Part of your job is to help your ADD Clients “re-write their owners manual” and set up client-specific systems that will “end run” their challenges and stoppers. Only then will they be able to predict their own functioning so that they can move toward their goals without tripping over obstacles.  Only then will they be ABLE to be accountable.

ADDers already collapse “lack of accomplishment” with “personal failure.”  Do NOT fan that stinkin-thinkin flame.  The overall goal of the homework and the ADD Client Prep Form is not to get things DONE.  It is a Sherlocking tool.  How else are you going to figure out what stops them – surely you aren’t expecting them to come up with a full-featured example from memory?

WHY not that

The important thing is not THAT they didn’t do their coaching homework, but WHY they didn’t get it done. Where did the process fall apart? What were the specific stoppers?

Remember the essential need to ask ONLY what I call  real” questions – not “leading” questions, and CERTAINLY not indictments with question marks at the end.

Even though this might seem a legitimate use for a “why” question, if your ADD client knew the answer they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place!  (You do need to find out why, but you’ll have to nose around a bit for the answer.)

There IS no “homework failure” in that light, so make sure you don’t turn that light off with some little “encouraging” comment like “I’ll bet you will do better this week.”

[ADD Coaching Hint:I’ll give you ten to one they won’t if that’s how you handle it]

7. “Grow” some other client

THIS client needs easily reachable baby steps to help them build a track record of success – evidence – to counter all the evidence of failure in their memory banks.

  • When in doubt, assign less than your first instinct – be especially cautious when they ASK for more.
  • Watch what happens once they believe you really aren’t going to expect more than they can do!
  • Put a sock in your mouth if you are at risk of saying, “See what you can accomplish when you really try?” when they surprise you.

[ADD Coaching Hint: That is exactly the opposite of what you need to do at that point,
and will send your ADD client into a tailspin.]

8.  Use questions VERY cautiously

Perry Mason coaching won’t work well AT ALL with clients who are not “neurotypical.”

MEANING: If you were trained to move the session along through the use of “powerful questions,” if you expect to be effective with the Executive Functioning struggles crowd – ADDers in particular – you’ll need to modify your style.

  • Once you understand pre-frontal cortex shutdown, you EXPECT an ADDer to fall silent or answer, “I don’t know” when you ask them a direct question that only they COULD know.
  • You will also understand how to work with them to open themselves back up, should you forget (your oops, not theirs !)

Whatever you do, for heaven sakes, please don’t say anything like,
“What would you say if you DID know?”

Even *I* find it rough to come back from that one.

Only PART of the problem, by the way, is the onslaught of a million additional items that flood my brain, suggesting things to say to let you know how JUST how obnoxious I find that decidedly unhelpful question — and what I have to tell myself to keep from saying any one of them out loud.

(And, by the way, I will ruminate over it ALL week long!)

Make sure you ask real questions, NOT indictments with question marks at the end of them – ADDers can smell an attempt to shame in dilute proportions, even when you aren’t conscious of it yourself.

  • Don’t ask, for example, “Why are you late?” or “Where’s your Client Prep form?” unless you are sincerely curious and have no should-based underlying motive for the question.
  • If you have a request, make it clearly and cleanly, don’t frame it as a powerful question.
  • If you are not 100% confident in your ability to use any answer they might give you to forward the session in a totally positive fashion, don’t ask the question.

9.  Don’t be afraid to be directive

Have you ever been with a party-of-8 in a crowded restaurant, still unsure what you wanted to order by the time the waitress got around the table to you?

Did it make it easier or harder once you noticed that all members of your party were awaiting your decision, and that there were two tables of 4 looking your way with hunger in their eyes?

  • Did the waitress play 20 questions or did she say something like, “Have the fish” to help you decide?
  • Did you think you had to have the fish simply because she said it to you in a directive fashion?
  • Did you feel any less “ownership” of your meal, even if it WAS the fish, simply because you didn’t come up with it by your very own self?


What might look like telling a client what do to a coach drilled in a question-based technique is actually an on-the-spot focuser that helps a client under pressure find a starting point for decision-making.

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to start with the questions with an ADD client.

[ADD Coaching Hint: All questions require decisions, if only to choose among several possible responses. In ADD-land, “several” might mean “several hundred,” depending on how YOU phrase the question.  Decisions are Pre-Frontal Cortex intensive – pressure!]

10. Understand that your ADD client has ADD

Expect ADD affect from ADD clients. Duh!

  • It’s your job to Sherlock the clues and find the missing pieces so you can help them put the puzzle together.
  • Fish can’t tell you much about water – it’s the only thing they’ve ever known.
  • Don’t ask questions they won’t be able to answer – it will only shut them down.

The divergent come-from in expectations of self-awareness is one of the core differences between ADD-flavored coaching and “vanilla” techniques of any sort.

That said, an ADD-literate therapist will often use questions designed to lead clients through an examination of their past as part of the journey of self-discovery, exploring the underpinnings of their ADD challenges. A  good ADD Coach will not — and must not.

  • Therapy with ADDers commonly makes use of why questions, good ADD coaches do so rarely.
  • Therapists are trained to handle whatever might come up in that exploration, and licensed to do so. Coaches are NOT.

In ADD Coaching, the answer to, “Why?” is most often “ADD.”

Why ask THEM a question when you already know the answer and they probably won’t be able to come up with it?

No, it most certainly is NOT an excuse to bumble along forever, but you simply cannot assign “causes” of any other sort until you have absolutely, positively ruled OUT executive functioning  disabilities.  (If you don’t identify the problem correctly, how do you expect to make a difference with it?)

Don’t make it mean anything else when, for example, ADD Clients . . .

  • . . . are late, even late repeatedly, especially with “lame excuses” you find it difficult to believe could be true.  They probably are.  Sherlock, don’t should!
  • . . . have trouble transitioning from point to point, or off the phone at the end of the session
  • . . . can’t “cut to the chase” when you ask them to bottom-line something
  • . . . see things in a black and white fashion and dig in and defend when you point it out.  (SURELY, you don’t expected it to shift on a dime just because you pointed it out, do you?)
  • . . . pay late they will discover the check they swore they’d mailed in their wallet. They never seem to have a stamp; they always seem to get lost on the way to the post office. They will probably be mortified, and will always be sincerely sorry — but it won’t keep it from happening again.
    (If your blind brother knocked over your Ming vase, do you really believe true contrition means it will never happen again? MOVE the vases!!)

You DON’T understand, if you elicit that comment from a client.

Take that as your clue to listen harder — and to listen from belief.  This is a time when questions will be helpful – as long as you are sincerely asking to understand, not to guide a session in a pre-determined direction.

** Laser coaching, no sugar-coating **

  • If you are not ready-willing-and ABLE to *do* the things mentioned in this document, you are unsuited for the ADD Coaching profession until you are.
  • Please hire an ADD Mentor Coach to help YOU help them
    while you update your skills base  – OR –
  • Refer your ADDers to someone who understands their needs and is
    ready-willing-and ABLE to accommodate them —
    an ADD Coach with ADD-specific coach training.

No matter how long you have been coaching “vanilla” clients, or
How successful your current skill set has been with those clients,
OR what you have been told by ANYbody to the contrary,
if you choose to work with ADD Clients,
you need an ADD-specific skill set.

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Related articles here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

5 Responses to 10 Essential ADD Coaching Concepts

  1. Pingback: Getting up and Getting Going | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. DeShawn says:

    I love this site!! I learn so much about myself! Thanks for taking the time to share your vast knowledge. It truly is amazing what you know and I look forward to learning with you and Peggy this winter. I hope you are able to enjoy being with your friends and colleagues for Kate’s Memorial. Take care!


  3. Ann Miller says:

    Everything I read makes me realize how much I don’t know and how much more I want to know. I imagine in December when we are finishing up, it will all come together in a fashion and I’ll come back and read this and say, “Ah-ha, I AM doing this. Atta girl!”


      Everything I read makes me realize how much I don’t know and how much more I want to know.

      RE: sentence #2:

      You will say that, Ann – and you WILL know so much more and have a MUCH better handle on ALL of it. And you will be right to celebrate that for the HUGE success that it is – and you will be so PROUD of the difference you have made and ARE making in the lives of your clients.

      And, if you are very, very lucky, you will have a day or two to bask in the afterglow of that thought before you face the NEXT part of your journey.

      You will be amazed anew when, one year later, you will say it AGAIN.
      “Wow, I thought I understood [fill in the blank], but this new client made me understand everything at a deeper level. I think I am only NOW getting a REAL handle on this ADD coaching thing at the level at which I really want to work.”

      And the next year, and the next, and the year after that — you will have the SAME thought at deeper level.

      I can’t TELL you when (or if) you get to the place when “it all comes together.” I’ll let you know when I get there — 25 years and counting, no end in site!

      Brains determine behavior, and brains are as different as fingerprints
      ADD brains are different-on-steriods!!

      So I guess, once I have coached every living being on the planet, I will FINALLY be able to say I have it ALL together. 😀 (Here’s to long life, huh?)



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