Hearing vs. Listening: Learn the Difference and How Each Impact Mental Health

And, learn some tips to improve your listening skills

Close-up young women talking, while sitting in bunk bed

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When you're in conversation with someone, it's common for your mind to drift to other thoughts. For example, maybe you have a lot on your plate, and you're thinking of what all you need to get done. Maybe you just argued with your partner, and you're still upset about it. Or, maybe you're exhausted, and you start fantasizing about how cozy your bed will be when you turn in for the night.

When your mind begins to wander, you're likely still hearing the other person, but you're not truly listening to what they have to say. However, this can negatively impact your conversations and relationships with people, if they feel that you're rarely listening to them.

With inputs from a psychologist, this article breaks down the differences between hearing and listening and describes how they impact mental health. It also provides some tips to help you become a better listener and improve your relationships.

Hearing vs. Listening

“Many people use the words “hearing” and “listening” interchangeably; however, there are several important differences between the two,” says Kelly Workman, PsyD, a psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center. According to Workman, hearing is the passive intake of sound while listening is the act of intentionally working to comprehend the sounds (e.g., words or background noises) you hear.

Kelly Workman, PsyD

The saying ‘In one ear, out the other’ speaks to the difference between hearing and listening.

— Kelly Workman, PsyD
Hearing
  • Passive

  • Involuntary

  • Requires no effort

  • Physiological perception of sound

Listening
  • Active

  • Voluntary

  • Requires effort

  • Intentional interpretation of sound

Hearing

Hearing is a passive, involuntary, and sensory process in which we perceive sounds. It is a physiological response that involves our perception of sound. It does not require focused attention.

For example, if you’re watching television, you can still hear the sound of traffic or sirens outside, your neighbor’s dog barking, and people laughing in the hallway.

Listening

Listening is an active, voluntary, and intentional process that involves making sense of the words and sounds you hear; it requires your attention. In turn, you may develop an emotional response to what you hear. Listening with the intent to understand is referred to as active listening.

For example, if you’re listening to someone talk about a difficult day they had at work, you will probably have your full attention focused on them. As they speak, you will start to understand what their experience was like and the impact it had on them. This will help you make thoughtful comments and ask relevant questions to further understand their experience.

The Role of Hearing and Listening in Mental Health

Both hearing and listening play an important role in our lives. Hearing is a form of sensory input whereas listening is a way to form connections with other people, according to Workman. She explains the role these functions play in our mental health.

Importance of Hearing in Mental Health

Hearing is an important sense that helps us navigate the world. The loss of hearing can have a profound effect on mental health as it could lead to anger, social withdrawal, changes in our sense of self-worth, and depression.

It is important to keep in mind that using sign language and paying attention to body language are ways you can listen without the sense of hearing. You can seek mental health care if you are experiencing depression or adjustment difficulties due to the loss of hearing. 

Importance of Listening in Mental Health

We are social beings and have a universal need for connection and belonging. Listening is what enables us to develop increased curiosity about other people’s experiences, increased compassion and empathy, and increased connection.

If you are not listening to others or being listened to, it can negatively affect your sense of connection and belonging. You can probably think of a time when you were not being listened to; the experience may have caused you to feel devalued, uncared for, and lonely, all of which can contribute to feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression.

Listening and engaging with others can strengthen your relationships. Similarly, the lack of listening can create tension and distance in relationships, make it difficult to resolve conflicts, and affect your mental health and well-being. 

What Does It Mean to Hear and not Listen?

“People often listen with the intent to respond rather than the intent to understand. This means that they are relying more on hearing than listening,” says Workman.

Workman lists some reasons why you may be hearing and not listening:

  • You may not have learned the skill of listening—this is perhaps the most common reason.
  • You may be busy, distracted, or daydreaming.
  • You may have social anxiety, which can make it harder to listen because you are focused on planning what to say next or worried about what others are thinking about you.

Kelly Workman, PsyD

The implication of hearing rather than listening is that it might be hard to feel connected to others.

— Kelly Workman, PsyD

It’s also possible that you just might not be that interested, in which case Workman says it is important to check in with your values and have awareness of what types of connection and relationships are important to you and what type of communication partner you want to be.

Tips to Become a Better Listener

It is in fact possible to become a better listener. Workman suggests some tips that can help you improve your listening skills:

  • Set an intention to improve: Setting a clear goal to work on your listening skills can help you think more concretely about how, when, and who you can practice with.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness helps you be more present. You can practice it simply by noticing what has your attention in the moment; is it the person speaking to you or something else? If your attention is on something else, you can gently redirect your focus back to the person by noticing the changes in their voice, the words they use, and their nonverbal expressions.
  • Be curious: Adopting a curious mindset allows you to truly listen and understand. In doing so, you might notice that you automatically become even more curious and interested in what the person is saying.
  • Let go of judgments and assumptions: When you judge and assume things, you essentially close the door to new information which means you are less likely to pay attention and listen. Letting go of judgments and assumptions will also help you become more curious.
  • Summarize what you are hearing: Repeating in your own words what you heard the other person say can communicate that you’re engaged and gives the other person an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Ask questions: Asking relevant, open-ended questions shows that you are listening and responding in a thoughtful way. If you’re not sure what to ask, you can try to think of who, what, when, where, or how questions.
  • Use nonverbal gestures: Using nonverbal cues, such as making eye contact and occasionally nodding your head, can communicate that you are listening and paying attention.
  • Try to validate: While giving someone your undivided attention can be validating in and of itself, being able to acknowledge how someone’s thoughts and feelings are understandable given their history or current circumstances can be quite meaningful.
  • Give advice only if required: Don’t try to solve the problem or give advice unless that is what the person is asking for. We often want to help others which is why we’re quick to offer solutions. However, this can be quite invalidating to people because a lot of the time they just want to be understood and listened to.
  • Put away distractions: This can be difficult since we are constantly surrounded by distractions. However, little gestures such as putting your phone face down so you can’t see messages or notifications come through or turning away from your computer screen can help you be more focused and attentive.
  • Practice compassionate listening exercises: You and a partner can each take three to five minutes to share a personal story. There should be a 15- to 30-second pause before the other person starts sharing. After both people have shared their stories, you can take a few minutes to discuss what it was like to listen and be listened to in this way.

A Word From Verywell

While we often equate hearing with listening, the former is typically a passive activity whereas the latter is more active. There are in fact steps you can take to become a better listener. Making the effort to actively listen to the people around you can help you connect with them and improve your relationships with them.

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Article Sources
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