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What is the difference between hearing someone and listening to them?

According to the
Merriam-Webster dictionary, Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Hearing. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound”. It is an involuntary and effortless physiological process that has even been
described as accidental. Schmitz, A. (2012). Section 4.1: Listening vs. Hearing, in Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. Saylor Academy. Saylor Academy.
You are constantly surrounded by sounds that you hear but, unless there is a reason to do otherwise, you have likely become accustomed to ignoring the constant whirring of fans, beeping of cars, mummer of voices, and noises that would otherwise exhaust or distract you. Opposed to hearing is listening, which “is
purposeful and focused Schmitz, A. (2012). Section 4.1: Listening vs. Hearing, in Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. Saylor Academy. Saylor Academy.
rather than accidental”. Listening is an acquired skill that involves hearing as well as
“meaning making, comprehension, and communication”. Conflict Resolution Activities for Middle School Skill-Building [CRAMSS]. (2015).
It is an intentional and purposeful practice
that requires Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.
a high level of motivation and energy, “a desire to understand another human being, an attitude of respect and acceptance, and a willingness to open one’s mind to try and see things from another’s point of view”.

Listening is a
five-stage process Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.
involving hearing, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding:

  1. Hearing – a physical response that involves the perception of sound waves. You must hear to listen, but you do not need to listen to hear.
  2. Understanding – involves analyzing the literal and symbolic meaning of the sounds you hear, given the context you are in. Successful listening depends on the listeners ability to correctly understand the intended meaning and context of the sounds.
  3. Remembering – involves adding the interpreted message to the mind’s “memory bank” and must be done carefully because, just as your attention is selective in listening, your memory can also be selective. What you remember may not reflect what was originally seen or heard.
  4. Evaluating – involves weighing evidence, sorting facts from opinions, and determining the presence or absence of bias or prejudice in a message. This step can only be started after a message is delivered or else it inhibits your ability to attend to the message.
  5. Responding – completes the listening process and involves providing appropriate verbal and non-verbal feedback to the speaker.

What is Active Listening?

Depending on the objective and manner in which the listening process is pursued, close to
twenty different listening styles Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.
have been identified. However, one of the most popular distinctions with regards to listening styles, is the distinction between active and passive listening. In a way, the distinction between active and passive listening can be compared to the distinction between listening and hearing. A
passive listener Sullivan, L. (2009). Passive Listening, in The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioural Sciences. SAGE Publications.
hears what a person is saying but is not interested in understanding the messages that lay beneath the content of the words that are voiced. They do not attempt to ask questions to demonstrate involvement or to give feedback and they fail to show empathy. Passive listening is listening without reacting. It’s one-way communication. People have compared talking to a passive listener to talking to a wall.

On the other hand,
active listening Mind Tools Content Team. (n.d.). Active Listening: Hear What People Are Really Saying. MindTools.
involves making a conscious effort to understand the complete message being communicated. An active listener looks beyond the words to consider the message being communicated by a speaker’s tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, context, and previous experience. They are engaged, responsive, and supportive, asking questions for clarification, deferring judgement, and encouraging the speaker to dig deeper. Active listening is an essential communication skill that requires lots of practice as well as a conscious investment of empathy, effort and attention.

Why is it important to actively listen?

Not surprisingly, the benefits of active listening are most pronounced with respect to relationships. A
2011 study Gearhart, C., & Bodie, G. (2011). Active-Empathic Listening as a General Social Skill: Evidence from Bivariate and Canonical Correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2), 86–98.
found that people who scored higher on the Active Empathetic Listening scale (AEL) (a measure that assesses active listening skills) also perform better for four of the six commonly recognized social skill dimensions: Social and emotional sensitivity, social control and social expression. In general,
people who interact with an active listener, Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E., & Robinson, M. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13–31.
rather than a passive or “problem-solving” listener, report feeling more understood and greater conversational satisfaction. In the context of
romantic relationships, Reznik, R., Roloff, M., & Miller, C. (2012). Components of Integrative Communication During Arguing: Implications for Stress Symptoms. Argumentation and Advocacy, 48(3), 142–158.
active listening has also been associated with enhanced problem-solving skills, relationship stability, increased conflict management, and reduced stress. Active listening strengthens relationships by communicating respect and building trust. By not judging the speaker, active listening also facilitates further disclosure, and develops a stronger sense of empathy and compassion.

Not only this, but active listening is also known to be an essential skill for mental health professions. Mental health counselling students who received active listening training were able to provide
more effective counselling services Levitt, D. H. (2001). Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one microskill in beginning counselor training. The Clinical Supervisor, 20(2), 101-115.
and more successfully engage in crisis intervention.

Overall, the relationship and communication benefits derived from learning active listening skills are also applicable for youth and lead to lasting advantages for students both inside and outside the classroom. Active listening has the potential to enrich students' social, emotional, behavioural, and academic lives. For teachers, active listening is essential to be able to effectively engage with students and parents, and to build trusting relationships that lead to outcomes for students.

Listening: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Although it seems simple enough, there are a lot of barriers and bad habits that get in the way of effective listening. Before delving into how you can become an effective listener, reflect on the following
“listening mistakes” Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.
and think about whether or not you see yourself in any of these examples:

  • Distracted listening – the “multitasker” who is “listening” while also working their way through chores, emails and mindless tasks that have piled up. Although they say that they’re listening, their actions are telling the person that they are not important enough for them to stop what they’re doing.
  • Impatient listening – the “fortune-teller” who finishes everyone’s sentences, responds to questions or statements before they have fully materialized, and rushes people through their story because they “already know” where it is heading.  
  • Filtered listening – the “projector” whose interpretation of what they hear is based on past experiences or beliefs that are projected as a future expectation.
  • Selective listening – the “selectively deaf” who hear only what they want to hear, thereby reinforcing their own stories of the person based on the person’s age, gender, profession, dress, success, and personal relationship.
  • Verbal-only listening – the “hearer” who hears the words someone is saying but does not listen to the story or message they are conveying and neglects any non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone, attitude, and disposition.
So, how can you improve your listening skills? Here are
10 easy tips for becoming a better listener: Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.


  1. Face the speaker – show your attentiveness and engagement in the conversation by sitting up straight, leaning forward, keeping an open body language, and facing the speaker.
  2. Maintain eye contact – hold eye contact to the degree that feels comfortable.
  3. Minimize external distractions – turn off your phone or put down your book and ask the speaker to do the same. Go to a quiet and private location where you can talk without being interrupted or observed.
  4. Minimize internal distractions – be mindful and present in the moment. Notice when your thoughts start wandering and continuously refocus your attention on the speaker and what they are saying.
  5. Respond appropriately – respond to the speaker with your facial expressions (ex. raising your eyebrows), actions (ex. nodding your head, touching their hand), and words (ex. murmuring “uh-huh”).
  6. Don’t plan ahead – focus on what the speaker is saying rather than planning on how you will respond. The conversation will follow a logical flow so long as you stay present.
  7. Keep an open mind – don’t make assumptions about what the person is going to say and try not to pass judgements based on your own values and beliefs. Ask inquisitive and respectful questions to get a better understanding of their perspective.
  8. Listening does not equal problem-solving – unless they ask for advice, try not to give suggestions or feedback without asking. Sometimes, listening just requires you to say “That sounds like a lot. I am here for you if you need me”.
  9. Don’t interrupt – let the speaker finish their thoughts, even if they are complaining about you. Try not to jump into defensive action or fixer mode, and don’t project your experiences onto them by finishing their sentences.
  10. Engage – ask questions for clarification, summarize what you hear them saying, prompt the speaker to reflect on their experiences and dig deeper.

Some of these skills for effective listening are summarized by the acronym SLANT, which stands for:



SLANT has been used by teachers as a tool for explaining how attention, respect and friendship are communicated through body language and non-verbal cues in addition to verbal cues. SLANT can be used in small groups, class discussions, or working with partners. This tool helps students have productive and meaningful discussions.

Where can I learn more?

Education Corner – A Guide to Active Listening Skills in Education

Faculty Focus – Active listening: Seven Ways to Help Students Listen, Not Just Hear

The Chronicle of Higher Education – There’s No Learning When Nobody’s Listening

Edutopia – The Value of Active Listening

Harvard Graduate School of Education – The Value of Listening

Penn State University – Active Listening Online Tutorial

Waterford – The Value of Listening in the Classroom: How to Teach Your Students Active Listening

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Clearly explain the differences between listening and hearing
  • Describe the five stages of the listening process
  • Understand what it means to be an active listener and why active listening is important
  • Use active listening skills to improve personal relationships and enhance learning
  • Identify and apply the five components of SLANT listening
References
Beecuz

Conflict Resolution Activities for Middle School Skill-Building [CRAMSS]. (2015).  

Gearhart, C., & Bodie, G. (2011). Active-Empathic Listening as a General Social Skill: Evidence fromBivariate and Canonical Correlations. Communication Reports, 24(2), 86–98.

Levitt, D. H. (2001). Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one microskill in beginning counselor training. The Clinical Supervisor, 20(2), 101–115.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Hearing. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.   

Mind Tools Content Team. (n.d.). Active Listening: Hear What People Are Really Saying. MindTools.

Reznik, R., Roloff, M., & Miller, C. (2012). Components of Integrative Communication During Arguing: Implications for Stress Symptoms. Argumentation and Advocacy, 48(3), 142–158.

Rosen, K. (2019, March 26). 5 Listening Mistakes That Are Holding You Back. IA Magazine.

Schmitz, A. (2012). Section 4.1: Listening vs. Hearing, in Stand Up, Speak Out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. Saylor Academy. Saylor Academy.

Sullivan, L. (2009). Passive Listening, in The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioural Sciences. SAGE Publications.

Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.

Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E., & Robinson, M. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13–31.

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