Have you ever heard someone say: “You might be hearing me, but you’re not listening to me”?
If you’re familiar with that expression, there’s a good chance you know a thing or two about the difference between hearing and listening.
While hearing and listening may seem like they serve the same purpose, the difference between the two is fairly significant. We’ll go over some of the key differences, and we’ll share tips on how to improve your active listening skills.
The definition of hearing has more to do with the physiological act of hearing sounds than it does with making sense and connecting with the person who’s talking to you.
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.”
Listening, on the other hand, means “to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention; and to give consideration.”
Clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, says the difference between the two is night and day.
“Hearing is like collecting data,” he explains.
The act of hearing is rather simple and basic. Listening, on the other hand, is three-dimensional. “People that excel at work, or in marriage or friendships, are ones that have honed their ability to listen,” says Gilliland.
When it comes to the definition of listening, we can break it down one step further. In the communication world, there are two terms experts often use: active and passive listening.
Active listening can be summed up in one word: curious. The United States Institute of Peace defines active listening as “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.”
In other words, this is the way you want to listen if you’re seeking to understand another person or you’re looking for a solution.
On the opposite end of the listening spectrum is passive listening.
A passive listener, according to Gilliland, is a listener who isn’t trying to contribute to the conversation — especially at work or in school. It’s not a great way to communicate with people. That’s why Gilliland says not to use it with your spouse or kids since they’ll notice it pretty quickly.
Now that you know the difference between passive and active listening, you might be interested in learning how to improve your active listening skills.
Gilliland shares six actionable tips you can use to enhance your active listening skills.
1. Be curious
An active listener has a genuine interest in and desire to understand what is being said. When you’re practicing active listening, you’re more interested in listening to what the other person is saying, rather than formulating your response.
2. Ask good questions
This can be a tricky tip, especially if you don’t know what the definition of a good question is. For the purposes of active listening, you want to avoid asking yes/no type questions, which are closed-ended.
Instead, focus on questions that invite people to elaborate. Ask for more information and clarification. “When we listen, emotions are involved, and we desperately need as much information as possible if we want to move things forward” explains Gilliland.
3. Don’t jump into a conversation too quickly
Communication doesn’t have to be at record speed. When you’re talking with someone, consider easing into the conversation. “We tend to end up arguing when we try to rush, and there’s no rushing when we need to listen,” says Gilliland.
4. Anchor yourself to the subject and don’t get distracted
“When you’re trying to have the kind of conversation where listening is key, don’t go down rabbit trails,” says Gilliland. In other words, avoid throwing out unrelated topics or insults to distract from the subject at hand, especially if it’s a difficult one.
To avoid doing this, Gilliland recommends that you ignore the noise and anchor yourself to the reason you started the conversation until it’s over.
5. Stop making up stories
Have you ever been in a conversation with another person where you feel a lot of information is missing?
Unfortunately, when we don’t have all the information, Gilliland says, we tend to fill in the blanks. And when we do that, we always do it in a negative way. That’s why he says to stop doing it and go back to asking good questions.
6. Don’t make a big deal out of being wrong
If you’re good at admitting fault, this should be a fairly easy tip for you. However, if telling someone that you’re wrong is an area you struggle with, active listening may be difficult for you.
Rather than being so invested in being right, try admitting when you’re wrong. Gilliland says it’s as easy as “My bad, I was wrong about that. I’m sorry.”
Your close friends and family know you best. So, if you’re curious about the type of listener you are, ask someone who is close to you. Gilliland recommends asking them what types of mistakes you make when you listen to them.
He also says to ask them questions about the areas you can get better. If this is a person you spend a lot of time with, you can ask them if there are particular subjects or topics you seem to struggle the most with.
In other words, ask them if there are certain conversations or topics where you typically fail to practice your active listening skills.
Active listening is a lifelong skill that will serve you well in your relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. All it takes is a bit of effort, a lot of patience, and a willingness to be present with another person, and genuinely interested in what they have to say.