By Tamara Rosier, PhD, Research Committee Chair

Social Intelligence

Recent literature has highlighted the importance of social intelligence, the knowledge, cognitive abilities, and affections, which enable us to successfully navigate the social world. A part of social intelligence is the ability to take on another’s perspective, the ability to walk in another’s shoes. For example, my twelve-year-old daughter asks, “Will it be cold tomorrow?” Thinking about the annuals that I planted in my yard, I am tempted to answer, “yes”. Then I remember that she is playing soccer tomorrow and she is probably wondering if she needs to add layers to her uniform. Taking her perspective helps me shape my answer to help her make a decision, I answer, ‘There will be frost in the morning, but sunny, low sixties in the afternoon at your game.” And then I add, “I don’t think you will need your extra layers.” Taking another’s perspective requires significant cognitive resources; resources that an individual with ADHD may need to develop.

The Study

Because perspective-taking requires significant attention resources, the authors of this study assessed whether adults who reported symptoms of ADHD have difficulty using their conversational partner’s visual perspective to guide their interpretations.1 Eighty-one undergraduate students with ADHD symptoms were divided into two groups: those with high ADHD symptoms, those with low ADHD symptoms. Then they were asked to participate in a communication activity that required perspective-taking.

The task was to arrange a set of objects on a vertical “see through” grid (shelves). The confederate (the one who is helping the researchers), on one side of the grid, guided the participant, who was on the other side of the grid, to move objects in the grid until it matched a predetermined drawing. The participant could see all 25 shelves in the grid, while the confederate could only see 23 of them. Perspective-taking happened when the confederate asked the participant to move, for example, the smallest Teddy Bear. Because the participant could see the truly smallest Teddy Bear on a shelf that was hidden from the confederate, the participant needed to take the confederate’s perspective, realize that she could not see smallest Teddy Bear, and move the next smallest. The researchers measured participant’s eye movements as they looked for and chose the object.

Eye movement measures revealed that participants with high ADHD symptoms fixated on objects that were obscured from their partner’s view more often than those with low ADHD symptoms. The degree that the hidden object was considered correlated with the degree of inattention symptoms. The researchers concluded that individuals with high ADHD symptoms, especially inattention, are less efficient in their ability to use another’s perspective during a conversation.

An assumption of the study needs to be questioned. The mean age of the study was 19. Previously many researchers have noted that ADHD brain matures differently and at a slower pace. To generalize this study’s results to an adult population is premature and, even perhaps, misguided.

What This Means for Our Coaching

This study highlights one of the social limitations of having high ADHD symptoms. We, as coaches, have worked with “ego-centric” clients who have difficulty taking another’s perspective. To an untrained person, these clients seem rude and self-absorbed. To trained ADHD coaches, we know that they lack critical social intelligence skills. We need to help our clients develop different types of perspective- taking, so that they can:

  • Understand that different perspectives may result because people have access to different information;
  • “Step into another person’s shoes” and view their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior form the other person’s perspective;
  • Step outside a two-person situation and imagine how the self and other are viewed form the point of view of a third.

Mark, an 18-year-old client, has agreed with his parents to get off of his computer each night at 10:30. The conflict at home begins when he doesn’t keep the agreement. Simply telling him to stop doesn’t register in his brain because he has lost the focus of perspective. To help him engage this situation differently, he and I engaged in a roleplaying exercise where I took his persona, and he took his mother’s. Afterwards I asked questions about how he felt when he was in his mother’s character, what his mother probably thinks during discussions like this, and how he would prefer that his mother thought of him at times like that. This activity and others help this client to develop perspective-taking skills that lead to greater overall social intelligence.


1. Nilsen, E.S., Buist, A.M., Gillis, R., Fugelsang, J. (2012). Communicative Perspective-Taking Performance of Adults with ADHD Symptoms. Journal of Attention Disorders, 17 (7) 589-597. (Sign into the JAD–an ACO membership benefit–by using the credentials and instructions you find here.)

TamaraRosierTamara Rosier, PhD, has been an administrator, professor, leadership consultant, public speaker, and high school teacher. Now she is a passionate Leadership and ADHD Coach who helps her clients develop more confidence, smoother communication, closer relationships, and increased success. Contact her at 616-648-1969 and