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The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

 “You might be hearing me, but you’re not listening to me."

Key points

  • Many individuals interchange the words “hearing” and “listening” and mistake them for the same meaning.
  • The definition of hearing revolves around the physiological act of hearing sounds.
  • The definition of listening revolves around actively paying attention to the words and sounds that you hear to absorb their meaning.
  • When we choose not to listen to someone, whether our spouse, coworker, friend, or child, we potentially create a rift in the relationship.

Have you ever heard someone say: “You might be hearing me, but you’re not listening to me”?

Many individuals often interchange the words “hearing” and “listening” and mistake them for the same meaning. Although they share some similarities, there are significant differences between the two, with one being more active, requiring effort, and the other being involuntary and natural. To master communication and learning and be successful in interpersonal relationships, it is essential to become successful at listening and hearing.

What is hearing?

The definition of hearing revolves around the physiological act of hearing sounds. Merriam-Webster defines hearing as the “process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.”

Hearing is a passive, physical act that requires one sense and has to do with the perception of sound. It does not rely on concentration. Hearing is like collecting data; we hear sounds and words all day long, even if we are not paying attention to them.

What is listening?

The definition of listening revolves around actively paying attention to the words and sounds that you hear to absorb their meaning and develop an emotional response. Merriam-Webster defines listening as the “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” Listening is a mental, active process that requires multiple senses. Listening is a voluntary act, meaning that an individual can choose whether or not to hear. If you choose to listen, then it is an active process. You can hear sounds and words without having to listen or focus on what you are hearing. Hearing without listening is an example of the common phrase “in one ear and out the other”

Passive vs. active listening

Listening can be broken down into one step further: active and passive listening. Experts often use these terms in the communication world when talking about healthy relationships among peers, coworkers, romantic partners, friends, and family members.

Active listening requires curiosity, motivation, purpose, and effort. The active listener attempts to internalize and understand what they are hearing to connect with the other person and participate in a meaningful conversation. In other words, active listening is the way you want to listen if you want to understand or if you are looking to solve a problem with another individual.

On the opposite end of the listening spectrum is passive listening. Passive listening is listening that is characterized as being disconnected, inattentive, and unreceptive. A passive listener has no desire to contribute effectively to the conversation. A passive listener most likely already has an opinion formed and is unwilling to work with the other individual to come to a solution. Passive listening is not a great way to communicate with people you are striving to form relationships with.

Understanding the differences between listening and hearing

  • Listening is an active process, whereas hearing is a passive process
  • Listening requires paying attention, whereas hearing requires no concentration or attention skills
  • Listening requires empathy, curiosity, and motivation, whereas hearing is associated with being disconnected
  • Listening is a skill that is necessary to have effective communication, whereas hearing is not a great communication skill.
  • Listening is an internal behavior that involves both the mind and body, whereas hearing is a physical act that only involves the ears.

How listening and hearing can affect our mental health

Hearing and listening and the lack of each can drastically affect our mental health. Here’s how:

When we choose not to listen to someone, whether our spouse, coworker, peer, friend, or child, we potentially create a rift in the relationship. Sometimes we choose not to listen to another individual because we are too busy or do not want to hear what they say. In other words, we are telling this individual that what they are saying and feeling is not essential at the moment, and as a result, we are minimizing them. By not listening to someone or passively listening, we are causing strain on that relationship, which can eventually affect our mental health. On the other hand, if we choose to listen actively and engage with others, we are showing them that they matter and forming an alliance, and strengthening relationships. Choosing to listen to another individual actively is a good quality to have, and it can bring bountiful relationships into our life.

By actively listening and engaging with other individuals, we can:

  • Create strong and genuine friendships
  • Understand and exchange knowledge
  • Share memories
  • Pass on stories and ideas to the next generation
  • Resolve conflicts and create better solutions for the future

The loss of hearing can also have a drastic effect on our mental health. Although hearing is an inactive, physical process, it is an important sense that enables us to move around and adapt to our environment. Although we can still learn to listen to others without hearing (sign language and body language), losing our ability to hear can potentially lead to social isolation and depression. A study found that cognitive decline happens more rapidly in individuals with hearing loss than in those with normal hearing. Health care professionals should be aware of an increased risk for depression among adults with hearing loss.

Tips for becoming a better listener

Now that you know the difference between listening (active vs. passive) and hearing, you might be interested in learning how to improve your active listening skills to improve your communication skills and better your interpersonal relationships.

Ask good questions

We all know what it is like to share something with someone, and their response is “okay” or “oh”. It feels defeating and is obvious they are not listening or not interested in engaging in the conversation. Active listening requires asking open-ended questions and genuinely being curious about the conversation. When someone shares something with you, take it upon yourself to learn more by asking thoughtful questions. By asking who/what/where/when/how questions pertain to what the other individual is talking about demonstrates that you are listening and want to learn more.

Wait to speak

As humans, we simply listen just so we can speak. We love to hear ourselves talk. We often interrupt others before they are finished speaking. To be a good active listener, we must wait until the other individual is done talking and sharing their ideas. We do this by relying on cues that someone is done speaking. This comes in the forms of non-verbal cues or listening to them close a sentence or a thought. Think of listening as paying attention to learn. Concentrate on the words being spoken and be aware of how the words are spoken. We should take a moment to pause before we share our opinions with others.

Stay focused

Being focused on the conversation means that you have to block out other thoughts and sounds out from your mind to pay attention to the words being spoken. Staying present in the conversation can be challenging but putting away your phone and limiting other distractions are vital to helping you focus on the present conversation.

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