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There’s nothing worse than knowing the person you’re talking to isn’t listening or ignoring you.

  • They’re distracted and paying attention to something else, like their smartphone.
  • They’ve got half an ear open, but they’re looking over their shoulder at what’s happening behind you.
  • They don’t want to listen to you at all. The person you’re trying to speak to is walking away, pretending not to hear what you’re saying.

Does that ever happen to you?

We want others to listen because we seek to be heard and understood.

When others aren’t listening, you’re left feeling unworthy of attention, and it hurts.

Worse still, studies have shown that the pain of being ignored is worse than being bullied.

You are experiencing social pain, which you feel when you’re being ignored, overlooked or rejected. The problem being social pain is very real because it shares common neural pathways to physical pain. But because it is invisible, it’s easy not to see how it is impacting someone or to dismiss the severity of the pain caused. Pain is unique to the individual.

How I feel about being missed off an email invite to an important meeting I was expecting to be at will be different from the intensity and depth of feeling you might experience in the same situation.

The risk of ignoring social pain

It happens in an instant. You see the rolling of the eyes or the raised eyebrows of cynicism. Whether deliberate or unintentional, that unkind remark or feeling of being excluded over even a 2-3 minute period can result in lingering negative feelings.

The biggest risk is that if you continue to feel snubbed or left on the outer ring of the social network you’re trying to be part of, your pain is left unresolved. When hurt, it’s not uncommon to retreat to our cave and lick our wounds, we go quiet and gradually withdraw from making any further attempt to be seen or heard.

It damages relationships because you no longer trust the person who has hurt you. Without trust, there is a loss of social connection. You start to feel isolated, and that makes you feel bad and sad.

Your brain is a social organ. We crave connection because it provides safety which is why we form tribes – of family, friends and work colleagues. Safety is your brain’s primary organising principle. When you feel safe, you know it’s OK to relax. You feel in a more positive mood; you’re happier, you’re more collaborative and empathetic to others. It keeps stress levels down, so you’re more open-minded, curious to explore new things, more willing to take a punt because you’re less afraid of failing. You get more done.

Without that security blanket of safety, you’re out in the cold operating in survival mode, seeking to escape or find another group where you do get a sense of belonging.

How social pain changes behaviour

You become less willing to cooperate, respond to emails or show up to or contribute in meetings. You become less visible and audible.

You become more combative when challenged. A discussion becomes a bloody battlefield of conflict. Because you’re on the offensive or being defensive, there’s no room for negotiation you’re operating on highly charged negative emotions. If no-one is listening Plan B becomes getting noticed by whatever method works.

Your sleep pattern becomes more fragmented and disturbed. Your mood is low, and you may start to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression. You become more susceptible to illness as your immune system takes a hit, and if stress has become your middle name, you’re at increased risk of developing a stress-related illness.

It feels harder to stick to those positive self-care strategies you usually use to stay healthy. You’re less motivated to get to the gym, eat healthily or do those things with friends you normally enjoy, further compounding your sense of hurt and isolation.

Eventually, social pain can result in resignation. You give up trying and get lost in helplessness and feelings of unworthiness.

The way to greater inclusion

  1. Make it everyone’s responsibility to look to ensure everyone is being included. In meetings, this is about ensuring everyone has a voice, takes turns, and to encourage the quieter personalities and introverts to speak up early and often!
  2. Make inclusivity a core competency that is valued just as much as expertise.
  3. Keep your smoking guns at the door. This is about social etiquette and respect. Keeping mobile phones switched to silent or off  – and out of sight, to give the person who is speaking your full and undivided attention. The mere presence of a smartphone on a table diminishes the level of connection in a conversation.
  4. Provide a safe space for opinions to be voiced and questions to be asked without fear of judgment, ridicule or humiliation.
  5. Praise in public, criticise in private. ALWAYS!
  6. Listen before speaking and clarify what you think you’ve heard by repeating the key points.
  7. Check the vibe. What’s the ambience on entering the building or an office. Are people smiling, interacting, what’s the banter? Adding in a warm smile and friendly hello goes a very long way to show “I’ve noticed you and am happy you are here.”

Ignorance is no excuse to ignore the social needs of others. Driving greater inclusivity is one of the fundamental keys towards becoming a happy, thriving human.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.


  • Thomas Weir says:

    Thank you Jenny for your enlightening article on “Are you being ignored?”
    I have occasionally experienced the situation where the person I’m talking to is not responding and – I feel – not really listening.
    So it tends to undermine my self confidence and I think that the person must think that I am talking a lot of rubbish. So I dismiss him or her as being rude and uncaring, and don’t bother trying to talk to them any more.

    Your article is making me think again — perhaps that ‘rude’ person is having a bad day and is not ready to tune into what I am saying. So in future I am going to swallow my pride and give them another chance.
    Best regards, Tom.
    23 Feb 2020.

    • Dr Jenny Brockis says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I hate it too when I’m aware the person I’m speaking to isn not paying attention.
      As you suggest reframing from “they are rude” to considering they might not understand what you’re saying/are in a rush but don’t want to say/ are in a bad place and not able to hear you because they are lost in their own thoughts and pain helps you to think differently about them and diffuses the tension and negative emotion that comes up.

      Though if they are repeat offenders, then perhaps you won’t wish to pursue further conversations with them!

      best wishes,

  • Kenneth Whaley says:

    I understand the emotion,mood,anger,how sad and out of place it makes one feel going through this. But someone being your friend, spouse, stranger…… asks something random and you reply with “what did you say “,do what, huh,” Why would you get mad. Replying I didn’t say anything,/ I must be talking to myself, or you never pay attention to me.
    I think simple …..
    1. Simply repeat what was said/asked.
    2. Try speaking up
    3. Mabe use a firm tone when you are trying to be heard

  • Mark O'Conner says:

    I recently learned this about myself, when someone ignores me, I tend to cut off the relationship completely. I feel if I’m going to ignore someone, it speaks a lot at how low or irritable he/she is to me. Sometimes the loudest signal you can give some one is your silence.

    I’m a good and very accommodating person but when someone ignores me it’s game over. I’m done…life is too short to deal with disappearing tricks that modern people do.

    At the end of the day we all derseve respect and love. When someone ignores you, it’s a strong indicator of how they feel about you. I’m a strong communicator and I can’t ignore someone I know for any reason.

  • Clarkia says:

    Why does this person pay attention to me in public, but then ignores me in private?
    Should I stop attending the public events they hold and cut them off for good?

  • June Dale says:

    As mentioned – being ignored is worse than being bullied.

    Being ignored by the world is the everyday reality for people with ADD-SCT … a gruesome fate that no-one would wish on another human being.

    Life for these unfortunates is not even a shadow of what it is for the average Joe – but because it’s something they grow up and live with, they find ways to endure this hardest of hardships.

    The human spirit is capable of immense feats of endurance – to which those the lives of those with SCT stands as testament.

  • Pamela Knight says:

    Hi, Thank you for the article.
    Since my divorce,1 by 1 my family , friends and nieghbors ignore me.
    I cant tell you why other than they dont like how Ive reacted to my husband leaving and I have struggled and experienced emense pain. Whats the point?
    They ignore you but before they check out they make up a reason why. Like my brother. I was trying to explain to him how Zelle worked and he got all crappy and so I just hung up.
    They push and push and then ..gone.
    No one has given me anything but critisism. They believe my exs lies easily.
    My cab company stopped giving me ridrs. All 3 of my lawyers have been jerks.
    There is alot more but what im saying is I have never and would never turn my back on any of them.
    Im slowly getting used to all this , what choice do I have?
    Thanks for listening.

  • Marianne says:

    Of course she was rude. Her reaction was awful. This reply is two months later so hopefully your feeling better. But in my opinion, she doesn’t deserve your friendship. I would tell her that you saw the face she made and therefore you can no longer be friends. She might try to gaslight you and say it didn’t happen, that you saw it wrong, but trust yourself. Then ignore her.

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