When You Often Zone Out Or Space Out During Conversations

Some people frequently zone out or have their mind wander during conversations. Some space out to the point where they miss what the other person said, and they're noticeably staring off into the distance. Others can use one part of their mind to follow the interaction and look like they're listening, but another track in their brain is daydreaming, thinking of chores they have to do later, or maybe even beating themselves up over past mistakes. Below I'll cover many reasons someone might zone out while socializing, then give some suggestions for reducing the tendency to do it.

Possible effects of constantly zoning out in conversations

If someone disappears into their head a lot while socializing it may not be a huge problem for them, but they still wonder why they do it so much. For others their spacey tendencies have consequences. If you zone out a lot these may happen to you:

Causes of often spacing out during conversations

As you'll see, there are many explanations for why someone might zone out during a social interaction, so it's not as simple as saying, "My mind wanders while talking to people because I have X."

That there are so many reasons people space out should tell you it's not an uncommon occurrence. Everyone does it from time to time. It's possible you zone out in conversations more than average, but overall what you're doing isn't some super-rare phenomenon.

Inborn traits

Circumstances of the conversation

Feeling shy, socially anxious, awkward, or insecure

Mental health

Life circumstances

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Things you can do if you feel like you zone out during conversations too much

I don't think it's inherently bad to be someone who lives in their head and daydreams or contemplates ideas a lot, but if you feel you do it to the point where it's negatively affecting your social interactions, here are some things you can try:

Have realistic expectations for changing your propensity to zone out

First, if you've always had a tendency to zone out, don't expect to totally eliminate it. It may just be part of your personality. However, it doesn't have to be All or Nothing. Even if you can reduce your spaciness by half, that can make a difference in how well your conversations go.

Second, once you start working at it, don't expect to change in a week. Being more attentive is something you'll have to practice and build toward little by little.

Last, accept some conversations are just going to make you want to zone out. Sometimes you're going to be in a situation where you're tired and distracted going in, and then the people you talk to won't be that interesting. Do your best to stay focused, but realize anyone would struggle in those circumstances.

Just intend to focus on the conversation and not let your mind drift off

Your mind may wander a lot during conversations because you're not trying to do any different. Make a conscious effort to stay focused on the people you're talking to. If you catch yourself zoning out, switch your attention back to the interaction (without stopping to be too hard on yourself).

Give yourself something concrete about the conversation to focus on

Tell yourself you'll pay attention to the speaker's eyes, facial expression, or tone of voice. Try different things to see if one works best for you. Again, if you realize your thoughts have wandered, bring your attention back to your real world focal point.

Give yourself little assignments that require you to pay attention

If you feel you've got a reason to stay tuned into the interaction, you'll have an easier time being present. For example, if someone is talking about something that happened to them, tell yourself you'll give them a paraphrased version of what they said when they're done. Or tell yourself once you're alone you'll have a write a little summary of what was discussed. If you're in a group, you could challenge yourself to learn everyone's eye color, or subtly count how many pieces of jewelry each person is wearing.

Try to put your spare mental energy into attending to other aspects of the conversation

If you can follow what everyone's saying fairly easily, and that's not enough to capture your full attention, try attending to things like analyzing their facial expressions or body language, or trying to figure out how what they're talking about might make them feel. If someone is telling you about their problems, put all your effort into being the best listener you can.

If you're zoning out because you're losing interest in the conversation, do what you can to make it more interesting

If a discussion is boring you, don't be too quick to passively resign yourself to it and mentally check out. Maybe you can change the topic. Or if you're listening to someone, you could inject your own opinions, so the conversation becomes more or a back and forth. If you're having coffee with friends and everyone is losing steam, suggest getting up and going somewhere else.

Try not to jump to conclusions about people or what they're going to say

Resist the temptation to think, "This co-worker always makes the same long-winded complaints about how ungrateful her kids are. I'm going to think about what I want to make for dinner until it's over." I'm not saying that if someone has certain conversation habits that they'll always surprise you, but that you can't be sure.

Do some low-key fidgeting to vent off some of your extra energy

For example, if you're sitting across from someone at a table, bounce your leg or tap your fingers out of their view. Or if you're talking to a good friend, and know they won't mind, fidget in front of them.

Do what you can to get your energy back, if you're zoning out because you're feeling mentally drained

Get up and move around. Have a snack. Have some caffeine. Pretend to get up and use the bathroom, and give yourself a few minutes alone to recharge your batteries slightly.

Do what you can in the moment to manage any feelings of social anxiety and insecurity

Anxiety and self-consciousness makes us want to retreat inward. Conveniently, one of the best things you can do for that is make a conscious effort to focus on the present moment and what's going on outside of you. You can't get caught up in your worries if you're really paying attention to what the other person is saying. It can also help to take some slow, deep breathes and deliberately loosen any muscles you've been tensing unintentionally. What you don't want to do is disappear into your head and try to analyze or dismantle your worries. That's a useful skill, but should be saved for when you're on your own. This section of the site has many more articles on managing nervousness.

Acknowledge your distracted thoughts or feelings and tell them you'll attend to them soon enough

You have some thoughts because a part of your mind has identified a concern it thinks you need to handle. Sometimes it will be satisfied if you acknowledge the issue and promise to get to it later. For example, you get a thought about a tricky mission you haven't beat in a video game you've been playing. You can quickly tell yourself, "I'm talking to my friend right now, but I'll think about the game on the bus ride home." Or if you've been depressed lately, you could tell your mind, "I acknowledge I'm feeling drained and crappy now. I'll dwell on it more later if I'm still feeling that way, but for now I want to listen to my Mom's story."

Set aside some time to let your mind wander before a conversation

If you've got a lot on your mind, and know you have a social event later that day, do some deliberate zoning out beforehand. Lay down or go for a stroll and daydream as much as you want. It may clear some thoughts out of your mental queue and let you be more attentive when you see people later on.

Longer-term, practice meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness skills can help train you to stay tuned into what's happening right now. I'll just describe them quickly, since giving a full guide is beyond the scope of this article. You can easily find resources on them with a web search.

There are different types of meditation, but many forms of it ask you to sit quietly and focus on your breathing, counting, a mental image, or a repeated sound. If you catch your thoughts wandering - and you will - gently bring your attention back to your task. With practice you can go longer and longer between having distracting thoughts, though no one can quiet their mind entirely.

Mindfulness is a general skill of keeping your awareness in the present moment, while adopting an accepting, non-judgmental attitude toward whatever you experience. You can be mindful while going for a walk, sipping some tea, or grocery shopping. You can also be mindful during less-pleasant experiences, like if your knee is hurting or you're feeling stressed about a speech you have to give in a week. Like meditation, mindfulness is a skill, and as you work on it you can get better at keeping your attention focused on the here and now.

Longer-term, become more socially confident and experienced

It's easier to zone out if you're shy and self-conscious, and prone to getting caught up in your social worries. You're also more likely to get bored of a conversation and check out if you don't have the social skills to move it in a more-interesting direction. For example, in a group conversation, you're more likely to be engaged and attentive if you have the confidence and ability to speak up and hold the floor against people who try to cut in and talk over you.

Learn to pretend you're paying attention

Overall I think you should work on reducing your tendency to zone out in the first place. However, I realize there are times where you can't help but feel spacey and distracted, but you know it will be rude if you noticeably have your head in the clouds. In those cases you can take a calculated risk and try to fake that you're tuned into the conversation.

What to do if you're caught zoning out in a conversation

First, own up to the fact that you were zoning out. You've already been caught, so don't try to cover it up or guess at what they were saying that you missed.

If you were staring off into space while a group was casually hanging out, they may poke fun of you a bit, but that's all. Laugh along with them, then move on.

If you're talking to someone one-on-one, and they seem hurt that you were spacing out, give them a quick, sincere apology. If you were still following what they were saying, but another part of your mind drifted, you could tell them something like, "Sorry, I was being rude. I was actually listening. You were saying, X,Y,Z. It's just that when you said Y, it got a part of me thinking about something else."

If you missed something important, ask them to repeat it for you. It's a little embarrassing to admit you zoned out and didn't hear a thing they said, but it's better to learn what you need to after the fact, than keep going without ever learning it.