Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options if Someone is Significantly Distracted

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/distracted.htm

Updated  01-23-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers perspective on "distraction," and options for responding effectively to a distracted person. It also includes useful responses if you are distracted. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2  and...

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.


      Have you ever tried to have an important conversation with someone who was significantly distracted? How about when you were distracted? Some ways of behaving in each situation are more effective than others.

      Premises - kids and adults communicate with each other to fill current needs - i.e. to lower current discomforts, or gain pleasure). Their respective communication needs may mesh or clash, depending on several factors Effective communication occurs when each person feels their needs are filled well enough, in a way that feels good enough. Do you agree?

      Two essentials for any important verbal communication exchange are (a) to feel respected by our partner/s and ourselves, and (b) to feel heard well enough. A common block to hearing is distraction - i.e. when you and/or your partner can't stay focused on a common topic because of environmental and/or personal (mental-emotional) disturbances.

      The first step in responding effectively to this situation is personal awareness of what's happening now (a) inside you, (b) between you and your partner, and (c) around you both. A requisite for this awareness is having your true Self steadily guiding your personality. Awareness discloses whether you or your partner are unable to stay focused "too much."

      Think of the last time you were with a significantly-distracted adult or child. How could you tell s/he was distracted? Common signs:

  • little or no steady eye contact

  • talking and doing something else at the same time

  • obvious impatience and/or discomfort with the current topic

  • trying to change the subject (refocusing)

  • a facial expression of disinterest

  • listless, unemotional, or no verbal responses

  • insincere expressions of interest

It's hard to disguise disinterest for long, because most of us became experts at reading body and facial language as kids, Do you agree?

        Why don't people readily admit they're distracted?

       Because they are...

  • unaware of it,

  • too embarrassed to admit it

  • ignorant of how to express it

  • afraid of offending their partner and/or starting a conflict, and/or they...

  • don't want to admit where they're focused (e.g. on lust or lying).

Can you think of other reasons? The risks of not admitting or confronting disinterest in important situations are ineffective communication and possible relationship and/or self-esteem damage.

Response Options

      Your options depend on who is distracted. Until these become reflexive, mentally review...

  • these response basics,

  • your mutual rights as dignified people,

  • whether you have a genuine mutual-respect attitude, and...

  • This brief video on giving effective perso0nal feedback

  • Also consider asking if the person is distracted by anything physical or emotional before you bring an important topic.

If the Other Person is Distracted...

  • Identify what you feel, and specifically what you need with this person - e.g. to be heard, to learn, to cause change, to problem-solve, to set a or enforce a limit, or something else;

  • As a courtesy, ask if s/he is open to some personal feedback. If s/he says or implies "No," you have a different problem (indifference, insecurity, and/or distrust).

  • Depending on what you feel and need, choose one or more responses like these, with stead eye contact and a calm voice:

"You seem distracted / focused somewhere else now. (Are you?)"

"(Name), would you give me a hearing check / tell me what you've heard me say?"

"Would you rather talk about this some other time?" (If so, pick a specific time to continue.)

"Am I doing something that distracts you?"

"Are you comfortable with this topic?"

"When you don't look at me, I feel uneasy / distracted / disrespected / unheard."

"What do you need from me right now?"

"What do you think I need from you right now?"

"(Name), what would you most like to do right now?"

"Who's guiding you now, your true Self, or 'someone else' (a false self)?" 

Responses to Avoid

"You have to look at me when I'm talking!" (arrogant, combative)

"Pay attention, will you?" (disrespectful)

"(Name), am I boring you?" (demeaning, if sarcastic)

"You are the original space cadet!" (demeaning, unless humorous)

Response Options If You are Distracted

       Again, responding well starts with awareness that you are distracted environmentally or internally. This is most likely if your true Self is guiding you.

  • Identify specifically what you feel now. Emotions are reliable pointers to what you need.

  • Identify the unfilled emotional and/or physical need/s causing your distraction - e.g. "I need to turn the TV off / check the roast / call Dad / go to the bathroom / get some water / take an aspirin / feed the animals / etc."

  • Remind yourself that (a) you're needs are as important as your partner's if there's no emergency, and that (b) pretending interest that you don't feel is a lose-lose choice. Then say something like...

"(Name), I'm having trouble listening to you now. I'm distracted by _________. Could we continue after I (take some specific action)?"

"Can you excuse me? I need to __________ now."

"I'm sorry (Name), I'm really distracted. Can I call you back in 15 minutes?"

"Can you sum up? I'm running low on time."

Use the theme of these examples - brevity, honesty, and directness - to shape your own responses. Picture someone you're distracted with. Then say these out loud, and notice how you feel. For response options if you're bored, follow the link.


  • People governed by a false self may "resist" responses like these. They may ignore you, complain, deny, excuse, explain, get sarcastic, blame, whine, go silent, etc. Expect this normal reaction, and affirm it with respectful empathic listening. Then calmly repeat your original response with steady eye contact. Repeat this sequence until you get your needs met well enough or your needs change.

      Back away from these details, and compare these examples to the way you're used to responding to distractions. Are you motivated to try these options and see what happens?


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social behaviors. This article offers perspective on interpersonal distraction, and ways to respond effectively to it in another person or yourself. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

 This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful   

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson 2  Print page 


site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact