Why Can’t I Pay Attention to a Whole Conversation Right Now?

If your listening skills have gone down the drain, know you’re not alone—and learn how to hone your focus again.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Man drifts off in the middle of a conversation.
How to actually stop doing the things you know aren't exactly good for you.

It Happened to Me: I asked my boyfriend what he wanted for Christmas and then zoned out while he answered, and so I had to ask a second time, and he got (understandably) pissed. The horror! 

It doesn’t feel good to ask a friend, a roommate, a parent, a sibling or a partner to repeat themselves again and again because you keep losing your grip on the thread of conversation. Even in the best of times, it’s not always easy to listen. It can be tempting to drift off and daydream, glance down to check an Instagram notification, or pre-plan what we want to say instead of actually listening to the person we’re talking to. 


In case anyone missed it, we’re not exactly in the best of times right now, and a lot of us are having listening trouble accordingly. “We’re in a global pandemic faced with economic uncertainty, civil unrest, incompetent political structures, and existential fears around meaning and purpose,” psychologist Matthew Jones told VICE. Surprise, surprise: 2020’s constant deluge of despair has left us all a little emotionally strained. 

Per Jones, emotional strain can seriously limit our ability to listen to and engage with other people. “There’s a significant pull to dissociate and disengage from what’s happening, either through numbing, selective attention, or creating theories that ease our emotional tension,” he said. “All of these factors negatively impact people’s abilities to listen to themselves and one another.” Luckily, there are a few easy ways to fight the siren song of inattention. 

Get ready to say “Yes, and…”

There’s a reason improv classes are a go-to move for corporate team-building retreats and people looking to get out of their shells—best-case scenario, any organic conversation is going to use the same skills that make improvisational comedy work: the practicable skill of listening and reacting accordingly. 

According to Devin Bockrath, who teaches improv classes at Brooklyn Comedy Collective, the desire to pre-plan a comeback is a major tripping point for improv beginners, and she said she believes the same principle applies when it comes to being a good conversation partner. “People may feel a lot of pressure about what they’re going to say—we call that ‘getting up inside your head’—when really, it’s more like a tennis match,” Bockrath told VICE. “You just need to hit the ball back and forth.” 


Bockrath said it can be helpful to envision a conversation as a shared project or even a game in order to visualize the amount of effort you should be putting in to keep things in motion. “In improv, and in conversation, you're building something together,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”

Create a good environment for listening

According to Jones, where we are and what’s around us play a key role in our ability to focus on listening and engaging our conversation partner. “If you’re surrounded by chaos, unpredictability, or noises, your attention often drifts to seeking ways to control the environment to make it more optimal for the conversation,” he said. “This processing often occurs in the background of your mind but can contribute to missing key parts of the conversation.”

Jones said controlling your environment to the best of your ability, like moving away from the group of excited toddlers kicking a soccer ball in the park or waiting until the construction on your block has grinded to a halt before inviting a friend over for a distanced sidewalk hangout, is a good way to make sure you can actually listen to the person you’re talking to. “Prioritizing creating a space that will be calm and supportive of your engagement can be helpful,” he said.


Adjust for screen time

Unfortunately, a lot of the conversations we’re having right now happen onscreen by necessity. Facetime and Zoom reign supreme when it comes to linking up with distant loved ones—something that can definitely make existing listening problems even worse. 

Jones said, paradoxically, the pressure to maintain eye contact on a video call can actually interrupt our ability to concentrate, because we’re focusing more on giving the appearance of listening than actually doing so. “I often recommend that clients give themselves permission to allow their eyes and thoughts to wander much like they would in person,” he said. “This can free up mental resources and lead to more interesting insights.”

The temptation to multitask when so many conversations are happening on the distraction rectangles is understandably high, but in real life you would never try to read a listicle and talk to someone at the same time (unless you were a huge jerk). Since pop-up alerts for emails and news alerts aren’t exactly a feature of normal life, either (sorry, Google Glass!), if you want to bump your video-call focus up to in-person levels, go ahead and throw your phone or computer onto Do Not Disturb mode while you’re talking—99.99 percent of the time, that notification can wait until your mom is done talking about her cataract surgery.


Explain yourself

Some days just aren’t going to be good listening days, especially right now. “If you’re too preoccupied with thoughts or feelings, you may not have the capacity to listen with accurate attunement to the other person,” Jones said. He also said attention problems can arise in connection to a wider range of mental health issues than one might expect. “Attention related issues are not unique to ADHD, but instead show up across many mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression,” he said—so if you’re struggling with your mental health in general right now, poor concentration in a conversational setting might be just another symptom.

Bockrath also said she thinks the root cause of poor listening skills, especially when it comes to premeditating answers instead of actually responding, is social anxiety. “Right now, we don't spend that much time just sitting across from someone and having to make conversation,” she said. “We don't have to engage in that skill as often, and I think that makes us a little bit afraid of it.” 

Being open and vulnerable (and apologetic, if appropriate!) about why you aren’t as attentive as you should be will go a long way in making sure whoever you can’t quite manage to listen to knows it’s nothing personal, and that you can’t wait to hear from sometime in the future when you’re a little less rusty and a lot less burdened.

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