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5.1: Listening vs. Hearing

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Understand the differences between listening and hearing.
    2. Explain the benefits of listening.
    Angry Man With Megaphone
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Angry Man With Megaphone" by cosimoilvecchio is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    “Are you listening to me?”  You may have been asked this question because the speaker thinks you are nodding off or daydreaming.  Many of us mistakenly think of listening as a “passive” activity.  We think we just need to sit there and let words wash over us.  Yet the reality is different.  Effective listening demands active participation.

    In our sender-oriented society, listening is often overlooked as an important part of the communication process. Yet research shows that adults spend about 45 percent of their time listening, which is more than any other communicative activity. In some contexts, we spend even more time listening than that. On average, workers spend 55 percent of their workday listening, and managers spend about 63 percent of their day listening. (Hargie)

    O, the Oprah Magazine featured a cover article with the title, “How to Talk So People Really Listen: Four Ways to Make Yourself Heard.” This title leads us to expect a list of ways to leave the listening to others and insist that they do so, but the article contains a surprise ending. The final piece of advice is this: “You can’t go wrong by showing interest in what other people say and making them feel important. In other words, the better you listen, the more you’ll be listened to” (Jarvis, 2009).

    A group of men listening during a meeting
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Zach Graves – The Importance of Listening – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The adage, “We have two ears but only one mouth” serves as an important reminder that listening is often even more important than talking. Yet many of us think that listening is the same thing as hearing and therefore put very little effort into the process. The reality is quite different. 

    Listening vs. Hearing

    Hearing is an automatic brain response to sound that requires no effort. We are surrounded by sounds most of the time, such as airplanes, lawnmowers, furnace blowers, the rattling of pots and pans, and so on. We hear those incidental sounds and, unless we have a reason to do otherwise, we train ourselves to ignore them. We learn to filter out sounds that mean little to us, just as we choose to hear our ringing cell phones and other sounds that are more important to us.

    Hearing (Accidental, Involuntary, Effortless) and Listening (Focused, Voluntary, Intentional).
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Hearing vs. Listening - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Listening, on the other hand, is purposeful and focused rather than accidental. As a result, it requires motivation and effort. Listening, at its best, is active, focused, concentrated attention for the purpose of understanding the meanings expressed by a speaker. We do not always listen at our best; later in this chapter, we will examine some of the reasons and strategies for becoming more active critical listeners.

    Benefits of Listening

    Today, you can gain a great deal of information and entertainment through reading and electronic recordings rather than through real-time listening. If you become distracted and let your attention wander, you can go back and replay a recording. However, much of what we need to hear at work and in our personal relationships isn't recorded.  There are many benefits to listening effectively and competently in real-time, including the four compelling benefits discussed below.

    Listening is a primary means through which we learn new information, which can help us complete tasks effectively at home, at work or school, and get things done in general. The act of listening to our relational partners provides support, which is an important part of building and keeping relationships and helps us meet our relationship needs. Listening to what others say about us helps us develop an accurate self-concept, which can help us more put our best foot forward and communicate our identify in the best way possible. Improving our listening skills can help us be better students and more successful professionals. In addition, listening effectively can help you improve your public speaking abilities.

    Clearly, effective listening has many benefits.


    Key Takeaways

    • Hearing is the physiological process of attending to sound within one’s environment; listening, however, is a focused, concentrated approach to understanding the message a source is sending.
    • Learning how to be an effective listener has numerous advantages. Effective listening can help you complete tasks efficiently, become a better partner in your relationships, serve as a reality-check for your self-indentity, become a better student, and even improve your public speaking abilities.

    5.1: Listening vs. Hearing is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.