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Hearing vs Listening – Mastering Communication

Updated: June 19, 2024 | Published: February 25, 2020

Updated: June 19, 2024

Published: February 25, 2020


While some people may use the words hearing and listening as synonyms, there’s nuance between hearing vs. listening. One is more active and requires effort, while the other is involuntary and natural. To master learning and communication, it takes both hearing and listening.

Let’s understand the differences so that mastering communication can be an achievable goal. This will help in school, in work, and in life overall.

Two people having a conversation

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Definitions: Hearing vs. Listening

According to the dictionary, hearing is defined as “the process, function or power of perceiving a sound.”

On the other hand, the same dictionary defines listening as “to hear something with thoughtful attention.”

In their definitions alone, it’s clear to see the big difference between the two. Listening requires attention, meaning it’s active. Hearing is passive — you can’t close your ears, so sounds will enter and be heard. This makes it involuntary.

Table comparing aspects of hearing and listening

Definitions: Active vs. Passive Listening

Active listening:

The listener is attempting to really internalize and understand what they are hearing. This requires motivation and purpose. The listener has an intention to connect and participate.

Passive listening:

Exhibits itself when the listener is disconnected and is unreceptive.

Defining the Differences

Continuous vs. Temporary:

Hearing is continuous. You will hear sounds all day because it’s a physiological aspect of being. However, listening is temporary because it requires attention and focus, which can’t be given at every hour of the day. As such, listening becomes psychological.

Involuntary vs. Voluntary:

Hearing is involuntary, meaning you don’t choose to do it. That’s why you can hear people talking, but you can choose not to listen and focus on what they are saying. This is like the phrase “in one ear, out the other.”

Reasons Hearing is Different from Listening

Listening requires patience and practice. This is based on a few different reasons, including:

The Physiological Reason:

Our brain can actually process words faster than people can speak them. The difference is major. People speak, on average, 125 words per minute, but our brains are capable to take in 800 words per minute. That’s why we can take in words, but still think be thinking as the words are coming in.

The Emotional Reason:

The amount at which we listen depends on how much we care. The depth at which we care can help to curtail the side thoughts that enter our mind when we are listening to someone talk.

How to Be an Active Listener

Active listening requires attention and care. Here are ways in which you can practice being an active listener:

1. Ask good questions:

When listening attentively, you can ask good questions. You can follow what the speaker is trying to convey and respond back with detailed and accurate questions to push the conversation further.

2. Be curious:

With anything in life, curiosity has the power to take us to greater levels. When you express curiosity during listening and genuinely want to know more, you will be better focused and pay attention.

3. Wait to speak:

One of the main tenets and sometimes the hardest part about being a listener is not interrupting. To actively listen, you have to rely on the cues that someone is done speaking before you open your mouth to talk. This comes in the form of hearing them close a sentence or thought, as well as non-verbal cues.

4. Stay focused:

Being focused means that you have to silence the other thoughts in your mind and pay attention to the words being spoken. One way you can practice on your focus outside of active listening can be meditation. This practice will help you learn how to be present so that when you are in the middle of a conversation, your mind is focused on what is happening with the other person, rather than thoughts about the past or future.

5. Don’t fill in holes:

If there’s a part of someone’s story that feels missing, don’t fill in the blanks yourself. Instead, ask the questions that will help you clarify and make better sense of the information.

Foundations of Effective Communication

Effective communication builds relationships. It also is a major part of learning and solving problems. When it comes to all aspects of life, you will want to be a good communicator to accomplish your goals and move things forward. Some of the foundations of effective communication include:

  • Finding meaning
  • Not interrupting
  • Asking specific questions
  • Restating what the other person is saying

Benefits of Listening

Today, we live in a world where we have so many different ways to communicate. However, with so much information circulating, it can be hard to remember things we hear. That’s why active listening is so important.

It’s also one of the reasons that podcasts and the digital revolution of audio entertainment is moving forward full-throttle. We all love stories, and some of the best ways we remember and understand them is by listening.

Listening is also a way that we feel understood. Since active listening requires the other person to focus and care about what we are saying, it is how we know that they are understanding our thoughts, feelings and desires. By listening, we are able to:

  • Forge strong and genuine friendships
  • Understand and exchange knowledge
  • Share information and memories
  • Pass on ideas and stories down to the next generation
  • Discuss and resolve conflicts
  • Create better solutions to existing problems

Group of people at work talking and listening

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

The Bottom Line: From Hear to Here

Ears give people the ability to hear, but listening gives people the ability to be here and in the present. Listening makes understanding happen, so that communication is actionable and insightful.

While you can’t practice how you hear, you can practice and hone the skills for how you listen. Understanding the difference between hearing vs listening is one step in being able to master good communication skills.

At UoPeople, our blog writers are thinkers, researchers, and experts dedicated to curating articles relevant to our mission: making higher education accessible to everyone.