I was quite proud of myself, to be honest. Despite all of the training and experience, sometimes working with people can be quite challenging - especially teenage people. This time, finally, I had managed not to let him get under my skin at all. And he walked away satisfied.
Allow me to explain:
One of my capacities in the yeshiva in which I teach is that of shoel umaishiv - one who is available to answer questions that students have when studying independently in the beis medrash (study hall). Students come with questions regarding how to read texts, as well as how to understand difficult passages, and occasionally to study with me. Sounds simple enough, right? It usually is.
Yaakov was an extremely bright eleventh grader. As exceptionally intelligent and engaged in learning as Yaakov was, though, he struggled to keep a chavrusa (study partner). One of the issues was his punctuality. Although he was interested in coming to study on time, a longer than intended coffee break, a spontaneous conversation with a friend in the hallway, or some other exciting going-on that can happen in the day to day of yeshiva high school would frequently distract him.
Another issue seemed to be stubbornness. Yaakov would oftentimes suggest an out of the box interpretation to solve problems in understanding the gemara (Talmud). Sometimes, these suggestions were a bit far-fetched. Consistent with standard operating procedure, a chavrusa who disagreed would question the suggestion. The more creative - at times even seemingly outlandish - the suggestion, the more vociferously Yaakov would defend it. That is also standard operating procedure.
There were, however, two quirks of Yaakov’s debating habits that tended to become problematic. One was his obsession with the argument. He and his chavrusa would reach a stalemate in their argument. They would then seek the opinion of a third party with whom Yaakov would again debate. This would be a fairly normal practice - if it would ever end. Yaakov would debate relentlessly. Sometimes, he would not only spend all of the class’s time allotted to study time in the beis medrash devoted to this debate, but even insist on continuing the argument at a later time.
The second major issue was his flair for debate. While many people intuit that suggesting a particularly novel idea should be done gently, Yaakov seemed to think quite the opposite. He would suggest a drastic conclusion that used his idea as a presupposition. Many a level-headed or conservative thinker would become triggered by the sound of this. The debate would therefore escalate immediately - and begin in a heated state, without the main point about which the parties are disagreeing having even been expressed. Only after a protracted and frustrating conversation would the other party even get to find out about what precisely they were arguing.
Following much time spent making minimal to no progress in successfully changing anyone’s mind, the question at hand would be brought to me - the shoel umaishiv. Yaakov’s body language seemed to convey an additional excitement for presenting his question to me - an authority figure with an admittedly conservative mind. Years of experience had trained me to be patient in taking the time to understanding his position fully, as well as validate its hypothetical logic, regardless of whether it was correct per se or not. Somehow, the bombastic nature and immature confidence that Yaakov projected were still a challenge for me. I managed to maintain my composure outwardly, but was plagued internally by one simple question: Didn’t he see how counterproductive this game is? How off putting it is to others?
As an ADHD life coach, rather than a licensed therapist, I am not qualified to diagnose ADHD. Nevertheless, I am allowed to have my suspicions. It occurred to me that perhaps Yaakov has ADHD. It would explain his high level of distractibility and struggles with punctuality. It would also explain his obsession with an argument. Although ADHD names an attention deficit, the truth is that it is really a challenge in controlling one’s attention. The ADHD brain is drawn to attend to the thing on which it can most easily focus. In ADHD coaching, we refer to this as the “shiniest toy in the room.” This nature of the brain can even lead to what is referred to by many as hyperfocus - a level of focus in which one nearly becomes oblivious to their surroundings, as well as the passage of time.
Most importantly, ADHD would explain Yaakov’s style of arguing. He wanted to trigger his partner. This was not out of arrogance, spite, or even immaturity. Rather, it was the same reason why so many individuals with ADHD love roller coasters. The ADHD brain is deficient in dopamine. It therefore craves it. The brain releases dopamine when something new and exciting happens. For some this can be the thrill of a roller coaster. For Yaakov, though, it was the thrill of the debate. The more heated it got, the better. Where others seek to deescalate the unpleasantness of conflict, he would instigate for the stimulation of it.
Keeping this in mind, I was more able to keep my cool. When Yaakov would make an inflammatory remark, I would smile. After all, wasn’t that part of it just for entertainment? I was then able to avoid feeling triggered, understand the position he was presenting, and answer his question appropriately. He didn’t get the desired rise out of me, but he did get the answer to his question. Additionally, he didn’t spend that much time doing it, and returned to a much less aggravated chavrusa. In this situation, by recognizing the “why” of how Yaakov was behaving, I was able to avoid playing in to his usual dance. I didn’t give him what he wanted, but I gave him what he needed.
Rabbi Shmuel Reich AAPC is an ADHD life coach in private practice in Monsey, NY (remote coaching also available) as well as a rebbi in Yeshivas Ohr Reuven in Suffern, NY. He can be reached for coaching of individuals or couples, as well as for speaking or writing engagements, at email@example.com or 646-262-8257.