The difference between Hearing and Listening

Earlier this year I gave a presentation to a group of teenagers. After deliberating the best way to teach them how to communicate, I decided to take an alternate route by teaching them how to listen. After all, if you listen ineffectively, you’ll communicate ineffectively. The quote “we have two ears and one mouth for a wise purpose” comes to mind – because it’s true! We should spend more time hearing others than running our own mouths. Truly listening (which I’ll explain further down this post as hearing) can bind broken hearts, solve problems, and keep relationships strong. The teenagers at my presentation learned the difference between hearing and listening, and I hope you can learn that skill after reading this blog post too.

Merely Listening

“Are you even listening to me?”
“Did you listen to me earlier?”
"You just don't get it."

How often do you hear these phrases in your relationships? Either a task was not completed, a response was off-base, or a message was not received correctly when these phrases are uttered. You see, listening is simply the physical sensation of sound ringing in your eardrums. Everybody listens. Soundwaves travel; we hear a sound. But with mere listening, the message is not always understood. 

Think of the childhood game of Telephone, where someone tries to send a message down a row of giggling kids. Usually the message is altered in some way before it reaches the end of the line, and the initial message of “Hi, my name is Nicci, and I really love to dance in the rain,” becomes the awkward “Hi, Mamie, Nicci really wants to see acid rain?”

The reason the Telephone game is famous for hilariously failing is because people always listen, but they seldom hear. I define hearing as “listening with the intent to understand.” Hearing is the conscious choice to direct your attention to a noise. Merely listening with the head bobble of “uh-huh” while our kids chatter on about dinosaurs and rocket ships is unhelpful communication. Hearing is more involved. Hearing means you actually take note of the dinosaur species, plus you know which planet the rockets are flying to visit. See the difference? Hearing also means the cell phones are put away, the TV is turned off, and the speaker has your full attention.


“I felt understood.”
“You get it!”

Hearing is the skill everyone needs to develop. Hearing goes beyond simply regurgitating the words back in the same sequence, but it involves genuine concern and a desire to understand. Hearing your children talk about dinosaurs allows you to grow closer in your relationships, as it is hearing that leads you to say helpful phrases like, "Wow, you've really been paying attention at school to remember all those dinosaur names. I'm so proud of you." As you hear, you can respond in ways that build up a conversation and the people you communicate with. Through genuine hearing, you understand the speaker and their topics. You might discover the source of your kiddo's rocket ship fascination, or pick up on hints for birthday presents for your spouse, or hear the underlying tone under your wife's statement of "I'm fine." (Because we all know that when your wife says she's "fine," that's a lie.)

The consistent pattern of compassionate hearing allows you to really know someone. You'll hear their words, but you'll also see their body language and facial expressions. You'll notice changes in their tone of voice or if they are fighting back tears. Hearing someone is more work than merely listening to words, but you'll gain so much from the person you choose to hear.

How does hearing build relationships?

Hearing people means you want to understand them. Everybody likes to feel heard and validated. You'd be amazed at the power that focused listening has on a person! One of the most common complaints in couples counseling is a lack of helpful communication. I teach couples how to hear with the intent to understand, rather than with the intent to respond. Hearing is a valuable tool for combating conflict. Think how your heated conversations would have been different had you stepped out of your own thoughts of how you were going to respond with the perfect argument as soon as the other person takes a breath - and instead listened to the message they were saying. What words did they use? How was their posture? What emotions are they describing? As you hear them, you'll recognize the bigger picture of their message. Having love and compassion on them enhances relationships. Seeking to understand others is a hearing trait. Quickly responding to secure your opinion is a listening trait.

May we listen twice as much as we speak, and may we hear their whole message so we can truly understand. 

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