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:
- People getting offended because you come across as if you're not interested or listening
- Embarrassing yourself when you have to ask someone to repeat something they just told you, or you zone out to the point where your friends have to wave their hands in front of your face while going "Hello?!?"
- People seeing you as being slow, dopey, or ditzy
- People seeing you as being rude, aloof, or checked out
- People viewing you as being strange and eccentric, in a bad way
- Missing important information because you weren't paying attention to it (e.g., directions a friend gives you, non-verbal signals that someone is flirting)
- Having a harder time thinking of things to say, because you aren't paying enough attention to the details in the other person's speech that may inspire you to come up with something
- Not fully enjoying a social event because you were stuck in your head and not tuning into what was happening around 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.
- Having a more inwardly-focused personality - Some people mainly seek stimulation from the outside world. Others have rich inner lives and tend to get lost in their thoughts. Contemplating one idea or another may be their default to the point where it feels like it takes a special effort for them to "zone in" on something from real life.
- Getting easily mentally drained by socializing - Some people are recharged by social interaction. Others, even if they're enjoying the conversation, are depleted by it, and need some alone time to recoup. If their social battery is low they're more likely to zone out.
- Being intelligent and able to mentally multi-task - Someone's mind may wander during a conversation because they can easily take part in it while only using a bit of their mental resources. They use their leftover brainpower to think about other things.
- Having a mind that's easily inspired - Someone could tell them about a mundane detail of their week, and it might get them thinking about some big philosophical concept.
- Having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) - People with this condition generally have a harder time focusing on one thing.
- Being on the autism spectrum - People on the autism spectrum / with Asperger's Syndrome report they can zone out during conversations. Sometimes their zoning out is of the same spacey, distracted quality as everyone else's. At other times they use 'zoning out', or a similar term, to refer to periods where they hyperfocus on something, or mentally shut down in an overstimulating situation. Also, someone with Asperger's may be paying attention to a conversation, but seem like they're zoning out because they don't know how to give the non-verbal signs that they're listening.
- Not being as good at processing spoken communication - Some people are otherwise intelligent, but their brains are wired in a way where they have a somewhat harder time understanding verbal information (as opposed to writing). Sometimes when they're listening to someone they can't follow it well enough, and they stop trying and let their mind wander.
Circumstances of the conversation
- Talking about a subject you're not interested in - If you're bored with the conversation your mind is way more likely to drift. If you usually find yourself around people who aren't your type, or who want to talk about things that don't appeal to you, you may check out of discussions fairly often.
- Listening to someone when you think you already know what they're going to say - E.g., your dad starts complaining about his day, again, and you feel like you've heard it all before. You space out because you feel like there's no need to pay attention.
- Listening to someone go on and on about something - Even if what they're saying isn't totally dull, if they talk at length you may start to check out after a while.
- Listening to someone with a dull speaking style - For example, they talk in a slow, monotone voice, or they add too many unnecessary details to their stories.
- Listening to someone who's inarticulate or jumping all over the place - If what they're saying is hard to follow, you may give up and start spacing out.
- Listening to someone you've concluded has nothing to say that's worth hearing - For example, they have the opposite political beliefs as you, and rightly or wrongly, you've decided they couldn't possibly have anything valuable to say. Whenever they start talking politics, you start daydreaming.
- Being in a conversation where you know you can get away with zoning out - E.g., you're talking to a co-worker who rambles about their hobbies, and gets so caught up in it they don't notice everyone's non-verbal signs of disinterest. Or you're in a big group conversation and realize no one is paying much attention to you. If you want to space out, and know you can do it without getting called out on it, it's likelier to happen.
- Being in a self-absorbed frame of mind - You don't care what the other person is saying, and are barely listening while waiting for your turn to talk.
- You're making conversation in a scripted, autopilot way - Like you're talking to a relative and making some standard small talk about your plans for the weekend. You're barely thinking about what you're saying and have allocated most of your thoughts to something else.
- Being in a group conversation where everyone is talking about something you can't contribute to - E.g., some friends who are gossiping about an old classmate you've never met.
- Being in a rowdy group conversation where everyone is jostling to speak and talking over each other - If you find those conversations annoying, or aren't good at fighting for your time to talk, you may mentally check out of them.
- Talking in a loud environment - If you can barely hear what anyone is saying it's easy to stop trying and think of something else.
- Chatting in a distracting environment - E.g., a bar full of TV's and lots of interesting people to watch. An image on a screen or someone walking by may send your mind in a direction other than paying attention to the person in front of you.
Feeling shy, socially anxious, awkward, or insecure
- Feeling nervous or self-conscious - Rather than focusing on the person you're talking to and what they're saying, your attention may get pulled to all the worried or insecure thoughts in your head (e.g., "They must think I'm so boring", "Why did I make that lame joke?")
- Thinking too hard about what to say next - This can come from a lack of social practice too, but is often caused by worrying you have to say the "right" thing. Rather than paying attention to the other person and responding more spontaneously, you're busy critiquing and over-analyzing every possible thing you could bring up for when it's your turn to speak.
- Mentally retreating from an awkward or uncomfortable moment - You may not consciously realize you're doing it, but if a social interaction is feeling too intense you may retreat into your thoughts to partially block some of it out.
- You've prematurely concluded you've failed the interaction - E.g., after talking to someone for a few minutes you've convinced yourself they don't enjoy talking to you. Your thoughts have shifted to ruminating on what you did wrong, how you're a screw up, how bad you are with people, and the like.
- Being anxious in general - Even if your anxiety isn't about socializing, the emotion is uncomfortable and distracting. As you're talking to someone your mind may be pulled toward all your worries, or the gross, scary physical sensations you're feeling.
- Feeling depressed - Depression is also a distracting, unpleasant state to be in. While having a conversation your head may be filled with thoughts of how awful you're feeling, how you're struggling to keep up a happy facade, how you've let everyone down, how hard it's going to be to slog through the next week, and so on.
- Being a trauma survivor - It's not the same as day-to-day zoning out, but people with a history of trauma can dissociate and check out in stressful conversations. It's their mind's way of protecting them - "This is too much to deal with right now. Time to mentally leave the room."
- Having a lot on your plate - E.g., you have half a dozen chores and a school assignment waiting for you at home once you're done having coffee with your friend.
- Being physically uncomfortable - Like, you have a headache, you're too hot or cold, your stomach is upset, or the shape of the chair is putting your leg to sleep.
- Being tired - Aside from sleepiness being distracting, it reduces your ability to concentrate.
- Being hungry - Like with sleep, if it's been a while since you ate, that can distract you or interfere with your attention span.
- Being buzzed or stoned - Substances unsurprisingly affect your focus.
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.
- Try to only half-zone out, so part of you can still get the gist of what the other person is saying
- Look toward the person who's talking, rather than staring off to the side
- Put an interested / listening expression on your face, rather than looking blank
- Nod and make little 'Mm hm' listening sounds
- If you're in a group conversation, laugh when everyone else does
- When you sense they're about to finish speaking, try to come back to the present so you can gather enough information to put together a reasonable response
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.