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Active Listening vs Passive Listening: Is One Better Than the Other?

Seems like we are inundated with information every day. I don’t know about you but sometimes, I find it difficult to unplug and not feel like I need to be in front of a screen or talking to someone.

It sure feels like we are digesting information and communicating with others in one form or another all the time. With so much information coming at us from all angles, it’s easy to become distracted and not give important items the attention they deserve. It’s very easy to default to passive listening pretty much all the time.

Passive Listening or Active Listening?

If we compare active listening vs passive listening, is one better than the other? As we will find out in the overall picture, one is better than the other for many situations but not necessarily all.

Clear communication between people makes for happier and more fulfilling relationships. Much distress comes from unclear or partial communication. It’s easy to forget that listening is half of all communication between individuals. Some might argue it is more important than the talking part.

Both active and passive listening have their places where they are effective. Read on to find out the difference between active listening vs passive listening and if one is better than the other.

Passive Listening

So what is passive listening? Passive listening is hearing something or someone without giving it your full attention. It’s typically fairly one-sided communication with little to no feedback given to what’s being said or listened to. It requires very little effort other than hearing what is being said and even then, the passive listener can miss parts of the conversation because they aren’t fully paying attention.

Typically, a passive listener won’t even nod his or her head in agreement, maintain eye contact, or give much of an indication that he or she is listening. We tend to slip into passive listening quite often and in many instances, that’s fine.

Suitable Situations

Passive listening is just fine for a wide variety of situations. Think of it as perfectly suitable most of the time when you are in multi-task mode.

A great example is what I am doing right now. I am listening to music while writing this article. I am paying far more attention to writing this article than I am to the music I am listening to. From time to time, I notice what song is playing and either sing along in my head or just acknowledge the music but I’m not really paying attention. Multi-tasking and passive listening go together well.

Some other suitable situations include things like:

  • Listening to music or news while working out
  • Watching television while catching up on work emails
  • Checking your phone while listening to a speaker at a conference you aren’t that interested in
  • Listening in on a several-hours-long all company product meeting update
  • Letting your spouse unload a lengthy diatribe to you regarding how horrible their day at work was
  • Hearing your kid ask for ice cream for the 6th time in a minute

Active Listening

As you might imagine, active listening is different than passive listening. Active listening is when you focus your attention to fully understand and comprehend what someone is saying. In many cases, you will be providing feedback either intermittently or when the person speaking is done talking.

You are giving the person and the information your full-on committed attention to completely absorb what is being said. You are fully present in the moment, focusing as much of your attention and energy on the individual speaking and acknowledging them in both verbal and non-verbal manners.

As you will see, active listening is suitable for a wide variety of situations.

Suitable Situations

  • When your spouse or significant other has a serious subject they’d like to discuss with you
  • Talking to your boss about leading a major project initiative
  • Business meetings where you have active roles and responsibilities in
  • Just about all situations where the subject matter is more serious and you are actively involved in the relationship
  • Listening to a good friend share with you their recent challenges and sharing your input and thoughts back to them
  • Talking to your children as they tell you about any kind of struggles they are having or help they are looking for

When Active Listening Is Better

An easy rule of thumb to follow is to be an active listener in any interaction where the relationship and the subject matter is important. You should employ your active listening skills when you need to really absorb the information being dispersed.

This could be when your spouse wants to talk about something serious or your boss is talking to you about an upcoming big project. It could be your teenage daughter wanting to talk to you about the challenges she is having at school or your best friend discussing his struggling relationship.

When you need to be fully present and pay attention, this is when you should be actively listening.

On the other hand, passive listening is perfectly fine when it’s not important to ensure that you are getting every detail or to show the person speaking that you are absorbing the information.

An easy way to assess it is to ask yourself if what you are listening to needs to be remembered and potentially acted upon. If the answer is no and you can envision yourself multi-tasking while listening, then you are perfectly fine using passive listening.

Do you feel like you could use some help sharpening your active listening skills? Read on to learn how!

How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Being skilled at active listening is beneficial to all major relationships. Some people are naturally good at it, others, like therapists, are trained to be adept. It’s something that a little practice can be very helpful in.

Here are some real-life tips to help improve your active listening skills.

1. Avoid External and Internal Distractions

External is pretty easy. When the other person is speaking, put your phone down and don’t keep glancing at the computer monitor. Do whatever needs to be done to eliminate external distractions.

Internal takes a bit more practice. Every time you feel your mind start to wander away from what the other person is saying, stop and regain focus on what is being shared. It takes practice, but you can cut out the internal noise in your own head.

2. Listen to the Content and Context of Their Words

It’s important to listen carefully to the words being spoken by someone (content), and it’s also important to listen to how the words and ideas are being used (context). The words will tell you specifically what the other person is talking about.

Keeping an ear on the context will allow you to pick up common themes or sometimes underlying things that don’t always get explicitly said. It’s about listening to the whole bundle of words and ideas.

3. Maintain Eye Contact

Make sure you maintain as much eye contact as possible without going over the top. You don’t want to stare unblinking into the other person’s eyes for 10 minutes – that’s a little much. What’s key here is to maintain a fairly regular amount of eye contact while the other person is speaking. It will help them to see that you are truly focused on them.

Speaking of which…

4. Be Mindful of Your Body Language

Both your body language and the other person’s are important. You want to project the kind of body language that shows you are paying attention.

Your body should be facing the person speaking and leaning towards them to some degree. It’s also a good idea to watch the other person’s body language while they speak. Remember, much communication is non-verbal.

5. Watch for Emotion

There is much to be learned when watching the emotion with which someone tells you something. As we all know, most people don’t deliver information in a robotic-like monologue. We can tell when someone is happy or sad or angry or hurt or excited when they are telling us something. Pay attention to the type of emotion that the other person is exhibiting when they’re talking to you.

6. Be Okay With Silence

Most of us get uncomfortable quickly when there is a gap or an extended silence in a conversation. We feel the need to fill that quiet space with some noise, usually our own selves talking. It’s a nervous response and is perfectly natural.

It’s worth remembering that letting a pause or gap in the conversation draw out and continue can help allow the other person’s thoughts to flow out naturally. Many times, a fill in the gap statement will interrupt a train of thought. Be okay with having the silence linger for a bit to allow the thought process of the other person to flow unimpeded.

7. Encourage Verbally

When the other person appears to need a bit of verbal encouragement, feel free to provide it. Sometimes, when sharing something of importance, it’s easy to get a bit nervous. Knowing that the other person is encouraging us to go on can be very helpful and allows us to feel more confident in what we are saying.

8. Ask Open-Ended Questions for Clarity

To ensure that you fully understand the story or message, sometimes it’s a good idea to ask a question. It’s usually best to ask open-ended questions because it will allow the speaker to expound on the story and not answer with a yes or no.

Questions that can be answered with a yes or a no tend to slow the story down or cause it to stop altogether. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, will many times lead to more details and an expanded story or context.

9. Encourage and Affirm

If needed, you can encourage the person to continue speaking or tell them they are doing a great job. This will help build trust and make the other person feel more at ease when speaking to you.

You should also provide affirmation that you fully understand what the other person is saying. Nothing feels quite as good as feeling understood. It is one of the most basic human needs and goes a long way in a conversation like this.

Conclusion

Active listening vs passive listening: Is one better than the other one?

As we’ve seen, both active listening and passive listening have their place depending on the situation. Neither one is truly better than the other one.

Passive listening works just fine in situations where you don’t have to devote 100% of your attention to someone or something or can multitask.

That said, there are certain situations where using your active listening skills is much more beneficial. If it’s something important that needs to be shared between individuals, it’s best to use your active listening skills.

Practice the techniques listed above if your active listening competency could use some improvement. The important relationships in your life will thank you.

More Tips on Becoming a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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