The Weird, Weird World of ADHD Coaching

I am a sociologist, and that is something that is really hard to turn off. The world is your lab. Everything is some form of participant observation, where you are watching and wondering what makes people tick and why they come together (or fall apart) in the ways that they do.

That’s my preamble/advanced apology for picking on the weird world of ADHD coaching. I have discovered that if you find out you have Adult ADHD, you should follow these steps:

  • Listen to podcasts promoting coaching/support groups
  • Join a coaching/support group
  • Feel so happy and hopeful now that you’ve found your tribe (i.e. other people with no short-term memory or concept of time) that you are inspired to pay it forward.
  • Start your own podcast and blog promoting your own, new coaching and support group business.

The ADHD Coaching Small Business Model

The first source of bemusement: ADHD people looooove new ideas! They have a new idea every ten minutes. So starting a small business where you get to help people and potentially earn a living is one humdinger of a new idea. The problem is that ADHD people also suck at follow-through and details, and they have short-term memories like sieves. So, if you know anything at all about small businesses, you can probably predict where this small business thing might go: Gobs of ADHD podcasts by earnest coaches (who also have coaches) that have super strong starts and then disappear after a year. On podcasts, you talk about and/or have guests who talk about all the challenges that come with having ADHD, including the challenges of running your own ADHD business when you have no sense of time, react allergically to paperwork, and need daily alarms to remind you to brush your teeth.

After listening to enough of these things to get the gist, one starts to wonder where, in coaching, the value of empathy tapers off, and the need for professionals with serious skills kicks in. In other words, at what point does ADHD coaching start (or stop) being a case of the blind leading the blind? I don’t mean to be unkind here, because hearts and efforts are all coming from good places. But hey, shouldn’t your coach have her shit more-or-less together before coaching?

The ADHD Conference

Two ADHD coaches walk into a bar.

Okay, no. They were actually at the big annual US conference for ADHD where parents, adult ADHDers, and (I expect anyway) about a million ADHD “experts” of varying actual expertise show up to talk about ADHD. I’m getting the impression that this conference is an awesome place to network if you are coaching, blogging, podcasting, or wrote a book about ADHD. (Or all of the above.)

Back to the story: One ADHD coach is confessing to another ADHD coach that she’s a wreck any time she has to pack for anything because she has ADHD, which is a near guarantee that you will forget something no matter how hard you try not to. She arrives at this particular conference having forgotten the business cards for her ADHD coaching business. Which she was going to hand out at networking events at the ADHD conference. To get clients with ADHD and help them to not forget their business cards.

Is your sense of irony kicking in yet? At the ADHD conference, is everyone late for sessions, including the presenters? Do half the attendees take the wrong bus and end up on the other side of the city? Do they have buckets of pens for people who want to write things down but forgot their pens?

It writes itself, doesn’t it?

Expertise and Money

I think that what makes me uncomfortable about this whole thing is the business model of coaching. In my last blog, I talked about the generosity of spirit that can come about when people make commitments to one another in support groups. But weird things start happening when you attach money to what very often amounts to simple peer support among people with similar needs and concerns. Weird things like a whole sub-culture of “expertise” as anyone can hop online, self-publish a book, and come up with their own marketing angle to make their particular brand of coaching distinctive. Even if intentions of individual ADHD entrepreneurs are sincere, the whole thing amounts to a real quagmire for people who are looking for help.

Coaches will claim that they provide practical strategies and serve as accountability partners. They may facilitate support groups. Yet these can easily bleed over into what is more properly called therapy. ADHD may be accompanied by other issues that call for professional intervention: depression (especially in women), or substance abuse. With ADHD, medication regimes are important accompaniments to learning and practicing skills, and coaches should not be prescribing or recommending or monitoring medications. So you can see grey areas and ethical issues emerging very quickly here when it comes to one’s qualifications to offer support.[1]

I could go on. And I might in a future blog because I’m right into thinking about this “coaching” thing more, because the ethical questions and the role of the internet in promoting “expertise”[2] apply much more broadly than in the ADHD world. For now, I’m still shaking my head about the lady who forgot her business cards. Cause I’d be right there doing the same thing, of course.

[1] I did find this short and fairly recent write-up on present efforts to credentialize ADHD coaching. The process of professionalizing a non-profession is really interesting because it follows some predictable patterns, which include turf wars among professional associations. But I digress…

[2]This is how you get people, without any apparent irony, writing books like “How to Become an Expert on Anything in Two Hours.” This gets even better, as the authors have also written a book called “How to Spot a Liar.”

Accountability

I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts about ADHD this week. There’s been this ongoing reference to “coaching and accountability” groups. It got me thinking about what accountability means, because it can mean different things.

In the world of policy wonks (of which I’m a citizen) accountability is a pretty loaded word. Educational philosopher Gert Biesta distinguishes between accountability in “democratic” or “bureaucratic” senses. The first emphasizes a kind of a voluntary social contract. That means that we buy into the idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re “accountable” in the sense that we accept that our actions matter for other peoples’ lives. The bureaucratic variety, on the other hand is punitive and watchful. In the contexts of the public sector (health, education, government) it means producing data to prove that you aren’t fucking up.[1]. So whereas the democratic variety of accountability is something that engage in voluntarily, the “bureaucratic” variety is based on a profound sense of social mistrust. Biesta talks about this in the contexts of teachers and how each understanding of “accountability” changes the way they act. This gist is that the “democratic” kind inspires growth and learning. The “bureaucratic” kind inspires teachers (and others) to find ways to keep people off their asses — to avoid getting in trouble.[2]

So I was thinking about all of this in the context of this business of self-help groups as forms of accountability. And I like it. Unlike the kind of accountability that you owe to your boss, or your teachers, or any other authority figure who says “perform or else,” accountability in the contexts of self-help groups comes out of an intentional creation of trust for the purposes of growth and learning.

In the context of these adult ADHD support groups (and countless other support groups), accountability speaks, I think, of our deep need to hook into communities that can remind us that our quests to “do better” are meaningful beyond our own self-interests. Autonomy, self-motivation, and self-discipline are celebrated in our culture. So why submit oneself the “accountability” in a group? I’d suggest it is because the “self” in self-development is limited in its capacity to offer the motivation we need to make efforts to change. These efforts achieve new dimensions of meaning when our “doing better” makes things better for people we care about.

[1] For the record, Biesta does not quite explain it this way. And adds much more to the topic than I am dealing with here. He’s awesome. Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On Good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75–87. http://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12109

[2] Again, Biesta is decidedly more eloquent…