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Active Versus Passive Listening: The Path to Understanding

Joey Velez MA, MBA

Instagram: @velezmentalperformance


Raise your hand if you have ever been in an argument. Now, raise your hand if you have ever been, whether formally or informally, in a discussion or debate. I assume that every single one of you raised your hand, if you didn’t, then I applaud you, and I hope you can still take something from this column. When arguments, discussions or debates arise, multiple individuals are trying to convey their side of the story, a particular message or discuss their beliefs. While it is important to speak your mind and share your opinion, communication breaks down based on how you respond when the other person is speaking. In particular, whether you are actively listening to that person or simply hearing them— because, there is a difference between the two. The results of that difference can impact the overall effectiveness of the conversation and the ability to develop a connection with the other individual.    

The Difference Between Active and Passive Listening

There are a few key factors that differentiate active listening and passive listening. First, there is the meaning of the two terms; active listening requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is said.  Active listening involves analysis and understanding of the words that you hear and using that information to interpret the message that the ear receives. With passive listening, you are still listening to the speaker, but you are not trying to understand the meaning of the message.  In other words, passive listening is more focused on the receipt of the message, rather than the actual interpretation of that message.

Second, the level of connection and engagement differ for both types. As an active listener, an act which occurs at the conscious level, you are trying to connect with the speaker. You are an active participant with the intention of solving a problem or providing support. Therefore, your level of engagement is very high. You focus on the speaker's message, their intent and what needs to be understood so you can assist them with their needs or concerns. 

As a passive listener, you are more disconnected and have minimal interaction with the speaker. Therefore, your level of engagement is very low or even nonexistent. The speaker might be trying to convey a message to you, but you could not care less. You would rather be somewhere else or thinking about what you have to do for the rest of the day.  If you miss information as a passive listener, no big deal, and you move on. 

To be a good active listener requires effort and a willingness to understand the intent and purpose behind the speaker’s message.  This allows you to increase your awareness of what you are hearing, and interpretation takes over when you begin to dive deeper into that message.  Passive listening is the opposite, where you are listening for the sake of listening.  For example, there are times when you may choose to listen to a person only to provide support by letting them vent, instead of helping them solve the problem, so there is an initial intent to be an active listener, but that changes when you realize the lack effort that takes. Then, you become a passive listener. 

How Learning to Listen Changed My Ways

I never truly understood the importance of active listening until I learned about effective communication in my graduate program. For as long as I can remember, it was about communicating in terms of right and wrong or making sure others understood what my point was. Never during that time did I consider what the other person was trying to communicate because I was so focused on my point of view or defending myself and my actions. This caused a lot of tension and left many conversations without much closure because I was either simply passively listening, or listening only to respond, instead of actively listening and trying to understand the other person.  A common phrase utilized was “but what I am saying…”, which ultimately meant “I do not care about what you are saying, listen to me”.  No conversation is going to be beneficial when one person is taking this approach. 

Graduate school opened my eyes to what effective communication looked like, especially in the role of a listener.  I never understood what “but what I am saying” looked like from the other side, or how it negatively impacted the conversation. I failed to see how that phrase negatively affected the other person. Then I started to realize how I felt when someone said that to me. I would check out of the conversation, begin to judge them and ultimately thought that they were not worth my time because they didn't want to listen. Once I realized my hypocrite ways, I made an intentional effort to improve my listening abilities and become a more active listener. 

As a mental performance consultant, listening is a vital aspect of my job. However, I wanted to implement this in my personal life as well. I removed my thoughts and beliefs from the conversation to fully understand what the other person was trying to convey. The moment we start to impose our views on other people is when communication breaks down. So, I began to set my ego aside to truly understand what the other person was experiencing.  While it took some time, I noticed that more of my conversations involved less tension, and I was able to understand the other person's point of view. This does not mean that I agreed with them every single time, but that was not the point. The point was to develop an understanding of what that person was experiencing.  Once I became a better listener, an active listener, I felt myself becoming more open-minded and developing a broader picture of the world around me.

How to Be a Better Listener

The first step to improving your listening skills is to be focused and intentional.  Focusing your attention on the speaker not only informs them of your interest in what they are saying, but it also increases your ability to consume the message they are giving.  If you are not completely focused on the speaker, you run the risk of becoming distracted since our minds have difficulty multi-tasking.  While you may be able to do multiple tasks at once, chances are you do not do these tasks well at once.  When you become distracted, you are missing essential information the speaker is delivering. Keeping your focus on the speaker minimizes your chances of missing information, and it also shows the speaker your interest.  

Secondly, keep an open mind when listening.  Hold off on imposing judgment and avoid jumping to conclusions.  Both of these actions compromise your ability to be an active listener and cause you to disengage from the conversation.  It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with what is being conveyed, but your goal as the listener is to understand the thoughts and feelings that the speaker may be experiencing.  You may not agree with their response or how they view certain situations, but you have to remember that these are not your thoughts.  Listen to the speaker; try to understand where they are coming from so that you can respond more effectively.  

Finally, paraphrasing is an excellent way to improve your listening. Defined as expressing the meaning of someone else’s point using your own words to achieve greater clarity, paraphrasing, when done well, can show that you understand or that you are trying to understand. It tells the speaker that you aren’t merely just hearing them but being an active part of the conversation.  There will be times where your paraphrase may be incorrect, which can result in the speaker feeling unheard and disappointed, but it can also result in a sense of appreciation.

I’ll Leave You with This

Active listening is a lost art. People can be so consumed with being right, defending themselves or proving their point that they do not listen to the message the other person is trying to convey.  By focusing on the speaker and actively listening to their message, you will be able to understand their perspective more clearly.  Understanding the beliefs and attitudes of other individuals can bring us closer together.  While there are multiple ways to view situations, solve problems and complete tasks, it is impossible for everyone to get their way.  However, if we listen to each other to try and understand each other, we can find common ground so that we can move forward together.  It all starts with being able to listen to others.  Learn to be a better listener. 


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