3 Times to Ignore People
Your undivided attention is a priceless and meaningful gift. In this age of overwhelming distraction, even a few minutes of focused attention can build rapport, trust, and connection.
Because your time and attention are so valuable, be judicious. Sometimes it’s both healthy and helpful to avoid giving attention in specific circumstances. Certain behaviors can drain you of your mental or emotional resources; you can choose not to spend your resources on them.
Note, however, that it’s behaviors that you ignore, not people. Yes, by ignoring the behavior you are also ignoring the person—however, it’s temporary. If you find yourself ignoring someone all the time, there may be a bigger relationship problem you need to face.
After all, this isn’t elementary school. I’m not suggesting you turn up your nose at a coworker or employee and say, “I’m not playing with you.” (Or whatever grown-up equivalent you devise.) Neither am I suggesting that you passive-aggressively give the silent treatment without actually addressing the real issue. Those types of ignoring don’t benefit anyone, least of all you.
Knowing when and how to ignore someone is an art. When you master this art, you’ll find you have more peace in your life and relationships, and more energy and attention to devote to what matters. Below, you’ll find three times when it’s in your best interests to ignore someone’s behavior and how to do so without hurting feelings or damaging the relationship.
1. Ignore disruptive behavior.
If someone interrupts your conversation or presentation, hold up your hand to signal that you heard and are not ready to respond. Nod if you like, but don’t make eye contact. Continue speaking or listening to the person or group you were previously interacting with.
Some interruptions are valid and necessary. You have to decide who and what gets your attention. If the interruption is important, deal with it. When it is simply disruptive, distracting, or self-centered, avoid intensifying the behavior by noticing it. In particular, when you are in charge of a group as a leader or presenter, the group expects you to stay focused and manage disrupters who constantly ask irrelevant questions, argue every point, or monopolize the group conversation.
Never give attention to a behavior you want to diminish. Debating, gossiping, overreacting, oversharing, whining, insincere emotional outbursts, and other types of “drama” thrive on attention. Without it, those behaviors starve to death. Don’t feed them!
If you absolutely must respond, give a minimal response and move on. And when disruptive behavior goes beyond annoying and becomes hurtful, inappropriate, or so distracting that it affects everyone’s ability to work, then disciplinary action must be taken; but do so without putting the person in the spotlight, or you’ll only exacerbate the problem.
2. Ignore bait.
Some people in your life know exactly how to trip you up … and enjoy doing it. They may attempt to manipulate you, annoy you, gossip about you, or disrespect your feelings and opinions. Don’t fall for it. It’s a trap. They’re trying to provoke you into an emotional outburst or inappropriate response to make you look bad and gain power over you. It takes character and a strong sense of self-worth to resist the temptation to react. (Side note: This applies on social media, too. Just keep scrolling…)
Reacting, of course, is different than responding. There may be times when a calm, direct, and firm response is warranted. You are welcome to shut people down and enforce boundaries! Yet the moment your response turns into an eruption, the manipulator knows they have power over you. Don’t let them win.
Sometimes the hateful person who whispers unbalanced, disrespectful put-downs in your ear is your own shadow side. Ignore your own self-talk if it becomes unnecessarily negative, unkind, or downright abusive. Don’t take your own bait. Tell the voice in your head, “Thanks for trying to keep me safe, but I’m not going to listen to you.” Then find something positive to fill up your mind.
3. Ignore floundering (to a point).
Life is hard. And that’s good. It’s good to struggle, to fight, to wrestle with your problems, and to overcome. You don’t want life to be hard all the time—not for yourself or your colleagues or your teams—or you will burn out. You need periods of rest and replenished resources to be able to face the challenges of every day. Yet no one ever learned or matured or found meaning and fulfillment from an easy life.
It can be excruciating to watch others flounder, whether it’s your direct reports, your fellow team members, your friends, your kids, or even complete strangers. And certainly, if others do not have the resources to manage their struggles, have compassion and help out. Yet frequently, especially in leadership, you help to ease your own discomfort rather than to build up the person you’re “helping.”
Let others flounder. Perhaps don’t completely ignore them—keep them in your awareness without turning your attention directly to them. But let them figure it out on their own: Let them search for answers and solutions. Let them discover a few of the ways not to accomplish a task. Let them manage their own emotions. Let them work out their own squabbles. Let them make a few mistakes and then fix them.
Don’t swoop in to rescue at the first sign of trouble. Be patient. Be a safe and encouraging presence. Give space for flailing about a bit. Manage your own anxiety and frustration. And ignore the floundering until it gets to the point where you must step in to avoid negative long-term consequences. (Let them flounder, but don’t let them drown!) Progress requires a bit of struggle.
How to Ignore Respectfully
Depending on the interaction, some or all of these tips may apply. Practice them when you see a behavior you want to disregard.
- Stay calm. All of the above scenarios hook you because you take them personally—you believe it’s part of your job or identity to respond. Remind yourself that it’s better to ignore those behaviors. Breathe deeply and calm your body and nervous system.
- Create distance. If necessary and/or possible, physically move away from what you want to ignore or figuratively “turn down the volume” by turning off certain notifications, delaying your response to messages, wearing headphones, or unfollowing a person or thread on social media.
- Focus on something else. The best way to avoid giving attention to one thing is to purposefully pay attention to something or someone else. Get busy. If you do need to speak to the person whose behavior you’re attempting to downplay, have something else you can look at instead of making eye contact. Minimize the attention.
- Avoid welcoming nonverbals. Don’t be unwelcoming, but avoid direct eye contact, big smiles, and moving or leaning toward them. Keep your face neutral and turn very slightly away.
- Gesture. Use your pointer finger or hand to signal that you can’t talk right now or that your attention is elsewhere.
- Give minimal responses. If you must respond, keep your words brief and on point.
Good communication skills often come down to balance. When do you speak vs. listen? When do you convey authority vs. openness? When do you collaborate vs. dictate? When do you enforce boundaries explicitly vs. more indirectly? And when do you give attention vs. reserving it? Most of the time, it’s best to give people all the direct, focused attention you can spare. It’s a huge investment in the relationship. But remember your focus is a valuable resource. Choose which behaviors you want to encourage and which you want to diminish… and then feed the positive ones with your attention.