Are You Listening?? The Difference between Hearing and Listening

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Ask any mother of a teenager. There’s a HUGE difference between hearing and listening.

Mother: are you listeningMother, standing at bedroom door: Pick up this room

Son, playing video game: Uh huh.

Mother: Do you hear me?

Son: Uh huh.


What is Hearing

Hearing is a physiological process that occurs when your ears pick up sound. It only requires that you are in range of the sound waves and that your ears and brain are capable of absorbing those sound waves.   Hearing is one of the five basic senses, and occurs automatically. It doesn’t even need you to be aware of it – hum of the air conditioner, elevator music, the teenager’s nagging mother.

What is Listening

Listening is a cognitive process. Your brain is actually decoding and attaching meaning to the sounds. Whereas hearing is automatic, listening requires you to choose to attach meaning to what you are hearing. In terms of the communication process, the listener is the receiver of the message. To be able to receive the message, the receiver must be aware of the sounds or words, and must translate those sounds into a message of some sort. In the example of the nagging mother and her video playing son, there is little doubt that the boy is capable of hearing his mother. He is just not attaching meaning to the sound she is making; she is just noise; he is not listening.

The Listening Process

listening sender and receiverThis graphic provides a simple example of the listening process. Mrs. S on the left is the sender of the message, the one who is speaking or gesturing. The mother, standing at the bedroom door, sends the message.

The message is the information that Mrs. S is passing: “Pick up this room.” Mrs. S passes both verbal and nonverbal cues in face-to-face communication, but when not face-to-face, a message can be sent through noise alone.

Mr. R is the receiver of the message. If Mr. R is listening, he decodes the message attaching meaning to it. Should Mr. R be the boy in the scene above, hearing but not listening to the message, there is no communication. Because without a receiver, there is no one to decode what Mrs. R is sending.

Ignoring is NOT the same as “not listening.”   With ignoring, the message is received and decoded, but the receiver is making a conscious decision not to acknowledge. In the communication process, the sender looks for feedback, any word or cue that the message was received. If the feedback look does not indicate that the message was received, Mrs. S can send her message louder or more directed. Listening is a skill.

It is not difficult to listen, even children can do it. But as with any skill, practice and attention are required to become skillful. Unfortunately, however, few of us have ever participated in formal listening training. People learning to play an instrument or play a sport are encouraged to practice, practice, practice. People who mention that they are learning to listen get quizzical looks from others who assume everyone knows how to do that. Ms. Chatterback listed a few interesting facts those skeptics should think about.  I’ve compiled the best into a handy infographic.

Listening Did you know

Listening is a Necessity

As we reap the benefits of the information age and become more adept at receiving information digitally, we are reducing our opportunities to practice this important skill. Yet 80% of top executives believe listening is one of the most important skills needed in a corporate environment. Whether following orders or helping customers, whether a medical or law professional, whether an accountant or a programmer, good listening remains vital to success. So it’s incumbent upon each of us to make a conscious effort to practice and improve.

speaking and listening


“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” -Bernard Baruch


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