Have you ever been thinking about that assignment that’s due tomorrow when you suddenly remember that your friend has been talking to you for the last few minutes? I do this all the time. When I return to the conversation I have no idea what we’re talking about, or more accurately, what they’re talking about. Usually I just nod along or give an affirming grunt. That tends to convince people that I’m listening to them. I often wonder if there something wrong with me or if this just par for the course of being human?
Maybe it’s a personality issue. I just can’t concentrate on other people because of some unique mental/physical trait. Other people are better on focusing on one thing at a time. I just need to focus on many different things at once. I’ve heard that some people are like scuba divers because they can dive deep into something for hours. Others are snorkelers, which means they frequently come back up for air. They need the distractions in order to keep being productive. Maybe I’m a snorkeler and I just can’t concentrate on one thing for too long.
However, I find that I can spend hours listening to a podcast about Elizabethan England, watching videos about Harry Potter fan theories, or making a puzzle. Clearly, I have the ability to concentrate for hours on one task, but when it comes to conversations with real-life people I can zone out so easily.
Maybe that’s because I’m an introvert. Conversations and interactions just don’t get me excited, especially when they remain surface level. If conversations are deeper I’m less likely to get distracted. Maybe it’s my aversion for shallow conversation that makes it easy for me to get distracted.
Maybe I’m just a product of my generation. I just have a need for immediate satisfaction that doesn’t come from face-to-face conversations. If you’re telling me a story without exciting visuals or an inspiring soundtrack, why would you expect me to listen to you? I could, perhaps, train myself to focus better. If I watch less TV maybe I won’t need to be so immediately satisfied in real-life conversations.
Maybe I just don’t care about people. This is the thought that haunts me the most. Even though I say I love people, maybe I don’t actually care about them. I care about them in the big, “I would die for you” ways, but not in the small, “tell me more about your hamster” ways. Sometimes, I wonder what my tendency to being distracted is telling my friends. Am I telling them that they mean less to me than mentally reliving my high school volleyball city championship game? Are these distractions a subtle way of dehumanizing the people I love most? I seem to be telling them that they, as human beings, are less important to me than non-human things.
Maybe I’m the one that’s being dehumanized. If I can’t care about people am I missing out on an essential human experience? Am I missing something important about being human if I can’t even listen to my friend talk for five minutes?
These are the type of thoughts I often have because I overanalyze everything, sending me into the the downward spiral you just witnessed above. The reality is that my tendency to be distracted in conversations is likely a result of a mix of all the reasons above. There are good reasons to think that my personality or the culture I live in contribute to these distractions. It’s easier to think that there’s a problem with my personality or my culture than to think I’m dehumanizing other people. I’m tempted to use those things as excuses so I don’t actually have to deal with them or at least acknowledge my bias.
As I’ve tried to improve my focus in conversations, there are three things in particular that have helped:
When someone is talking about something that goes over my head or that seems uninteresting, I just want to tune out the conversation. However, when I try to be curious about things I usually find that I can understand more than I thought. I meet a lot of materials engineers and I have no idea what they do. So now I ask them what their favourite material is (hint: it’s never steel). This usually leads to a more interesting conversation and their enjoyment of the material makes it interesting for me. Asking lots of questions and trying to be curious about hard and uninteresting things can make it easier to focus in conversations.
When I’ve been distracted in conversations I want to just slide back in and pretend that I wasn’t thinking about something else. It’s much easier than having to ask people to repeat themselves or admit that I wasn’t listening. Nobody likes to hear that they’re uninteresting, so I try to put it on myself. I’m the one who’s struggling to focus and it’s not their fault or the topic that we’re talking about. When I get distracted I try to force myself to be honest about it by saying sorry and asking them to repeat what they just said. The embarrassment of having to admit this usually gives me some motivation to keep focused in the conversation.
Being distracted won’t stop overnight. It takes a lot of time to change a habit. I can’t pretend that I’m going to have a great day of super-focused conversations without hard work and a lot of failure. It’s really easy for me to give up because I won’t be able to focus anyways. However, if I really want to be more focused, then I need to persevere through the failures. I can be patient because my goal is long-term. I don’t just want to be focused in one conversation today. I want to be more focused in every conversation I have. I want to show people that they do mean more to me than other things simply because they are human like me. They are worth more than all the things fighting for attention in my mind.