What Does Distracted Listening Look Like?

A silhouette of two people speaking in front of a landscape to demonstrate listening and distracted listening

You’ve probably experienced distracted listening at least once before. Maybe you’ve been trying to tell someone about something very important to you, only to realize that their focus is elsewhere. Perhaps you’ve even been the distracted listener in the past.

When this happens, it can seriously damage the relationship quality. We all want to feel like we’re being heard and that our thoughts and ideas are valued. If your conversation partner is focused on something else when you’re trying to speak openly with them, this is bound to create tension, distrust, and the potential for poor communication in present and future interactions.

That’s why I want to talk about it in today’s article. I’ll go over a few of the key characteristics of distracted listening, as well as some tips for speaking openly and compassionately when you feel like you’re not being listened to or tempted to choose to be distracted while listening to others. 

What is Distracted Listening?

Distracted listening is when someone is supposed to be paying attention to what another person is saying, but is actually thinking about or doing something else. Distracted listening can be caused by a number of reasons, including:

  • Feeling stressed or anxious about another area of life, so much so that one cannot focus on what someone else is saying.
  • Trying to listen in a loud or otherwise distracting environment.
  • Attempting to multitask while the other person is speaking.
  • Thinking about what one is going to say in response to what the other person is currently saying.

Characteristics of Distracted Listening

When someone isn’t truly listening to what you’re saying, it’s rarely done with malicious intent. Here are a few of the ways you might be able to identify when someone isn’t paying attention so that you can open a healthy dialogue to address the issue. Not all of the characteristics below will match all people, but here are some common ones:

Little Eye Contact or Head Movement

When someone is paying attention to you, they will often be looking at your face and eyes, respond with facial expressions, and may even nod occasionally. If someone is staring at a fixed space for any length of time, and isn’t responding with any non-verbal cues, this could be a sign that they’re thinking about something else.

Too Much Head Movement or Smiling

On the contrary, a lot of nodding or smiling a lot could tell you that the other person has checked out and is no longer listening to what is being said. At this moment, they may be trying to appease you or appear to be engaged, but in reality are not interested or have other priorities..


If someone is tapping their feet or their fingers, shifting around a lot, or otherwise moving in a way that indicates that they’re bored, it may be because they are uninterested or even focused on something else versus just having a nervous habit. They may be ready to move on to the next conversation or end that one entirely.


Sometimes, when people get excited about a topic, they can actually close themselves off from listening by interrupting what you’re saying to discuss what they want to talk about. While it’s true that something you said might have ignited this excited interruption, they’ve decided that they’re now going to control the conversation, making it so that you can’t say what you want to. It may feel like they think their ideas or point is more important than yours. 

Closed Off Body Language

Actions quite often speak louder than words, and this is especially true when you’re in a conversation with someone. If another person has made the conscious or unconscious decision to stop listening to you, they may cross their arms, face away from you, or even begin walking away. This is a clear indication that they’ve decided that they’re done with the conversation and may be trying to get away.

Of course, first consider that they did not hear you or misinterpreted your pause as finished conversation rather than you were gathering your thoughts to continue the dialogue.

Addressing Distracted Listening

It can be frustrating to realize that someone doesn’t want to listen to you or that they aren’t interested in what you’re saying. It hurts to think that a topic that is so important to you can be disregarded by your conversation partner.

However, instead of getting upset, you may wonder what the reason for that is. It’s usually better to talk to the person directly about your concerns, rather than stewing over them. Often, the person is not even aware of what they have done. Remember not to accuse them. Simply state what you noticed, how it felt to you, and that you understand that was probably not their intention. 

One way you can approach getting them more engaged is by trying to ask them more questions. This will help them feel more a part of the conversation overall. By giving them more room to speak, and listening to what they have to say, they may feel more inclined to reciprocate.

If you can learn the ways in which they communicate best over time, you may be able to build a stronger connection, allowing for better listening in the future. Maybe they don’t tend to ask many questions, but feel that it’s important to have their points heard. Or perhaps they enjoy being openly curious, but they feel uncomfortable being peppered with questions. Conversations are a give and take, so find ways to make it work.

Finally, if someone truly isn’t engaging with you time and again and you’re starting to feel resentful, don’t be afraid to bring this up to them in a kind and respectful way. Use “I” statements when speaking about your feelings. 

For example, instead of saying “You never listen to me,” rephrase your statement to, “I feel like you’re distracted whenever we sit down to talk, and I find this hurtful.” Ask questions about why this might be and talk about how you can work together to come to a solution.

Putting It All Together

Effective communication occurs when people come together to create meaning. This starts by listening attentively. While we rarely practice distracted listening on purpose, it can still hurt others when they’re trying to speak with us.

If you or your team members could use a refresher on how to minimize distracted listening and work together to improve communication, let’s have a conversation. Please get in touch to schedule a meeting.