Listening to Understand VS. Listening to Reply

If someone were to ask you if you are a good listener, you’d probably be quick to answer that you are, right? On the surface, listening appears to be a mundane task, something we do every day. We listen to instructions from our boss; we listen to what clients or customers are saying, we listen to how our partner’s day went. It seems simple enough.

What’s interesting is that people are notoriously bad at listening. For something that most of us do many times a day, we’re not that great at it. In fact, not being able to listen well and truly hear what other people are saying is one of the many reasons why there’s such a disconnect in communication across the board.

Various studies have found that we spend about 45% of our time listening, though we are ineffective listeners. On average, we only retain what we hear at about 25% efficiency. Those numbers aren’t high.

There are a plethora of reasons why you may want to become a better listener. Let’s take a look at active listening versus passive listening to get a better idea of the difference between listening to understand someone versus listening to reply to someone.

What is Active Listening?

You may have heard someone use the term active listening before. You may also have heard that active listening helps build your communication skills, meaning you can build stronger relationships with others and forge connections better. But what is active listening?

First and foremost, while some people are great communicators naturally, it’s not uncommon to find out that the people who are best at it have been actively practicing the skill for a length of time. So, don’t feel bad if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Listening is a talent, a skill that must be honed, practiced, and put at the forefront of one’s mind.

Active listening is a form of communication where the listener actively listens to what the speaker is saying and responds accordingly to the speaker. It’s easy to listen to someone speak while thinking about other things, or merely waiting for them to finish speaking so that we can reply.

Actively listening requires that we limit distractions and focus on the speaker. If you’re a person who’s distracted easily, you could try repeating the speaker’s words in your mind, as he or she is saying them. Once you do this enough, you will gain the focus you need without giving it much thought.

All in all, active listening is a form of listening communication, where the listener focuses without distraction on the speaker, giving cues and responses to the speaker that one is listening attentively. Actively listening employs a higher level of engagement, puts a limit on distractions, seeks to use problem-solving skills when responding, and gives the speaker the feeling that you’re genuinely listening.

What is Passive Listening?

Have you ever gone on a spiel about your day or the details of an event to your partner or friend and their response just wasn’t what you expected? It’s like they didn’t even hear what you said, right? It was probably due to the person passively listening to you.

They only heard the gist of what you said but didn’t understand the gravity and replied anyway, right? For example, you had a bad day, recalled the details of it with your friend, and their response was, “Oh, no. Sorry, you had a bad day. So, let me tell you what happened last night.”

Now, depending on what you said, this might make you feel brushed on the rug. Or like, hey wait, I didn’t just “Have a bad day.” I had a monumentally awful day that’s left me with big feelings that I need to process.

That’s the best way to explain passive listening. In this example, your friend was listening so they could respond, not so they could understand. In the same case, someone who was actively listening rather than passively listening may have said something like, “It sounds like today was tough on your emotions. Do you want to talk more about how it left you feeling?”

This response shows a deeper level of engagement, a level not typical for passive listening. Overall, passive listening is a form of listening communication where the listener absorbs information without actively engaging the speaker, often without verbal or nonverbal cues.

What Are the Key Differences?

  • When actively listening, people are often genuinely interested in what the speaker has to say. We want to understand what this person is saying and learn their point of view. In contrast, when passively listening, we assume that we already understand what the person is saying and don’t make any attempts to ensure that we do understand.
  • Active listening takes the form of two-way communication with a listener and speaker engaging one another actively. On the other hand, passive listening is a form of one way discussion where the listener is not engaging with the speaker.
  • While actively listening, one shows interest in the speaker by using appropriate body language, making eye contact, and using tone when responding. Passive listeners may appear uninvolved, hear selectively, and miss cues that the listener is giving.
  • When actively listening, the listener hears the speaker’s feelings and reflects an understanding of such while a passive listener may be distracted.
  • A passive listener may agree with whatever the speaker is saying, but is not challenging the speaker’s ideas, feelings, or using questions to understand as an active listener may do.
  • An active listener puts in the effort to be attentive while a passive listener is putting in minimal effort to be attentive, if any, at all.
  • When actively listening, the listener is analyzing, understanding, and summarizing what they’re hearing while in passive listening, the listener is just listening.
  • A passive listener may be listening with no intent rather than with intention and purpose as an active listener may do.
  • Passive listening often requires external reinforcement for the listener to feel motivated while active listening happens when the listener is self-motivated.
  • Active listening requires an intellectual exchange, while passive listening requires one person to be participating while the other denies or avoids an exchange of knowledge or understanding.

How Can I Work on Listening to Understand?

It may seem from above that someone who’s been passively listening simply doesn’t care about what others have to say or aren’t interested in people they care about. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember that earlier; we went over active listening as a honed skill. If you haven’t been taught or been made aware of the difference, it may not be that you don’t care to be a good listener, but instead, you just haven’t mastered the skill.

The good news is that there are plenty of simple things you can do to start investing in your ability to be a great listener. Before you know it, you’ll be listening to understand versus listening to reply. The change can take some focus at first, but over time, it will become second nature to you.

Try changing just one thing you do while listening at a time, when you’ve become successful with it, add another. There’s no need to overwhelm yourself, and just about any conversation you have throughout the day can become another opportunity to practice your new skills.

12 Tips for Improving Your Listening Skills

If you want to improve your communication skills and start listening to understand rather than listening to reply, start here. Use any of these tips throughout your day and watch as your mindset while listening begins to change.

Tip 1: Put an End to the Distractions

If you want to become a better listener, you need to come to a conversation without distraction. That means turning the television off, putting your phone away, and clearing your mind. For the next few minutes or hours, don’t think about the things you still need to get done, what happened to you earlier in the day, or what you’re going to wear to your next date.

If you’re having a conversation on the phone, don’t use it as a time to passively listen to the speaker and scroll your news feed. If you’re struggling to be present while someone is speaking and you find your mind wandering to other things, don’t get carried away.

This is a widespread problem for many people. You can start focusing on being less distracted by repeating the speaker’s words as he or she is saying them (in your mind, not out loud). Doing so will help your brain stay on track and focus on the conversation rather than thinking about other things.

Tip 2: Come to the Conversation with An Open Mind

Have you ever heard the beginning of what someone was saying and then had what you were going to respond with lined up? Rather than understanding the rest of what they were saying, you were ready to reply. You’re not coming to the conversation with an open mind or acceptance. You’re coming prepared to answer. To have an open-minded discussion, forget focusing on your interpretation.

Instead, focus on the following.

  • Avoid jumping to interpreting the speaker’s experience.
  • Refrain from immediately offering advice, “would do’s,” and “should do’s.”
  • Leave your judgment at the door and hear what the person is saying instead.
  • Remain present and attempt to listen deeply.

Many of the above things are second nature to us. For example, someone tells us how their boss was rude to them. Immediately, we reply, “If my boss said that to me, I would…” This response is not helpful, nor is it giving the listener any validation or recognition of understanding.

Tip 3: Be Attentive, But Not Overpowering

With all the talk of what it means to be active listening, it can start to sound like you need to be aggressive in your listening. Although it sounds like a lot at first, actively listening over time just becomes something you do in a relaxed, natural way.

You don’t need to lean forward and stare intently at the person speaking to you. Your focus should be on the speaker, being aware of them in a natural way.

You don’t need to hyper-focus on the details of their face while speaker but rather focus enough that you’re listening to the words they’re using, taking notice of tone, inflection, and word choice.

You’re there to listen to what the speaker has to say, not to dominate the conversation or space. If this all sounds like a foreign language to you, try focusing on one of the more simple, direct tips, and this one is sure to fall into place naturally.

Tip 4: Practice Self-Awareness

A little self-awareness goes a long way. There’s a good chance you know before a conversation even starts whether or not you’ll be able to give the person talking the time or attention they need. If you know that there’s something on your mind that you just can’t put aside, let the speaker know. You can say, “I know this is important to you. There’s something I need to deal with or take care of before I can be fully present with you.”

On the same note, be aware of your emotions. Have you ever thought back to a conversation you had and thought about how you would respond differently if you could go back? Often, when we aren’t mindful or aware of our emotions, we may say things we don’t mean. Or we say something one way when we mean them another way.

It could be that you’re responding from a place of defensiveness or anger at a situation rather than responding with how you genuinely feel. You could be answering from a place of thrill or excitement rather than responding with logical and thoughtfulness. Be mindful, practice self-awareness, your listening skills will follow.

Tip 5: Pay Attention to the Big Picture When Paraphrasing

One key aspect of active listening is paraphrasing what the speaker has said so far. There’s a right and a wrong way to paraphrase, though, so be careful. You don’t want to repeat what the person has said word for word, or use the wrong tone. You want to demonstrate that you understood what was said.

When you paraphrase what was said, the speaker will know that you’ve understood or will see if you’ve missed the point. This way, they have the opportunity to clarify, and the conversation is a constructive, mutual, and two-way exchange.

When it’s time for you to paraphrase, start with a central point before adding in smaller details. You’ll also want to remember that it’s essential not to use your point of view, but continue in theirs. Don’t add emotion in when paraphrasing either, stick with the facts. Lastly, remember to use different words than the speaker to demonstrate an understanding, rather than repeating what they said, word for word.

Tip 6: Listen With Your Eyes – Pick Up on Body Language

We’ve been focusing on the fact that great listening is an active task, not a passive one. That’s why it’s important to remember that you listen with more than your ears. That means that you’re actively using your other senses to cue you into the conversation. Start by being able to focus on the words that someone says to you and understand them.

Once you’ve mastered that skill, you can work on listening with your eyes. When people are talking, they’re using body language too. If you’re not familiar with common body language cues, it’s time to brush up! Developing awareness and the ability to understand body language is a skill that will serve you in many aspects of life, especially active listening.

Body language is the way that people communicate non-verbally. It can be supporting what the person is saying. Or it could give you cues that there’s more to what they’re saying than they’re opening providing with words.

Tip 7: Ask Open-Ended Questions

Another great tool to use when actively listening is asking open-ended questions. This helps the exchange become a two-way street while giving the speaker confidence in the conversation. Asking open questions allows the speaker to feel as if they’re in a safe place of understanding, where you’re actively trying to hear what they’re saying to you.

When asking these types of questions, you ensure that the speaker gives more than just a one-word answer. It allows the speaker to understand that there isn’t a wrong answer here. Instead, it gives them the space to think, question, express, and work out a response.

Asking open-ended questions also gives people the chance to further explore their thoughts and come up with answers to their inquiries, ideas, and feelings on their own. Rather than telling someone how they feel about something, they’re able to see it more clearly because they’ve tossed ideas around with you, and you were able to keep the exchange open for them to figure it out.

Tip 8: Avoid Judging

Many of us are guilty of hearing part of what someone is telling us and forming a judgment. At this point, we’ve decided what advice we’re going to give when the person finishes speaking. Now, we’ve been holding the thought of the advice in our minds, and we didn’t finish listening to the rest of what the speaker said.

You may not realize this is what you’re doing, but this is the core of listening to your reply. To drop this bad habit, create a new. Try not to think about what you’ll say at all, the entire time someone is telling you something. Just try to hear all of what they’re saying.

It’s at this point that you may want to ask your open-ended questions, allowing the speaker to fill you in on all of the details, or come to their conclusions. It’s not uncommon that you aren’t required to share your thoughts or judgment at all unless they specifically ask.

This skill can be hard to work on, especially when you’re talking with people that you’re emotionally invested in. We often think we know what’s best for our close friends and family, but this is when it’s most important to be great at the non-judgment skill.

Tip 9: Don’t Interrupt or Jump to Conclusions

Remember that good listening takes many forms, including asking open-ended questions. Some of us are guilty of interjecting, rather than knowing when a good time to speak is. You don’t want to talk over anyone, interrupt them, or jump to any conclusions.

It’s hard to pinpoint this skill in a specific direction; it’s one that comes with time and practice. Over time, you’ll learn what times are good for speaking and what times may just require a nod or no response at all. You may pick up cues that someone is ready for you to speak when there’s a pause in their wording that beckons a question or response.

The speaker may be giving you body language or facial expressions that look as if they’re searching for a response for you. You’ll come to understand that all though these tips are separated and numbered, that over time and with practice, they become one converged skill.

Tip 10: Paraphrase Before Responding

We discussed paraphrasing earlier, including the right and wrong ways to do so. Now, we use that technique to make our active listening into a polished skill. You see, paraphrasing isn’t just a way for the listener to give the speaker a confirmation of understanding, and a chance to clarify if you missed the point.

While we’re testing our understanding, it gives us time to gather our thoughts and formulate a helpful response. The answer the speaker provides based on our paraphrasing may change our next response. So, to avoid confusion and misinterpretation and the conversation going in circles, paraphrasing before responding helps the conversation becomes more constructive and stays on a positive track.

Now that you have a clearer picture and a full understanding, you can go on to respond in whatever way is necessary. Your response here may be a simple not, maybe another open-ended question, or perhaps a non-verbal communication beckoning the speaker to say more.

Tip 11: Challenge the Speaker

Although the tip says challenge the speaker, you should be challenging yourself first. You may disagree with what the speaker is telling you. Rather than responding with your disagreement, think about why the speaker’s message might be true. Think about why the message may be valid, to the speaker. If someone believes something to be real, it doesn’t mean it has to resonate with you for it to be true to them.

Secondly, take the time to challenge the speaker if you believe that’s what the speaker wants. When we’re practicing good listening, it’s essential to gain an understanding of why the speaker has come to you. Maybe they want to bounce ideas off of you, and perhaps they want your advice. You’re understanding of their stance is vital here.

If necessary, don’t be afraid to challenge the speaker – with the right tone and attitude. That means you might ask some non-confrontational questions. That means you need to be effective and direct, but you don’t have to be rude. Choose neutral words or words that are positively charged and be ready to offer a solution if necessary.

Tip 12: Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, the last tip is to practice. This one is self-explanatory. The more you do something, the better you become at it. What you may have noticed with this list of tips is that the first several were small tasks that you could individually focus on. As you move through the record, the last several are overall and significant picture skills to work on.

Once you master some of the more direct tips, you’ll learn that the tips begin to flow together. Overall, you’re getting better at active listening in general. If you don’t get out much or don’t have to talk to people daily at work, find someone who you can sit down with and practice active listening.

If you do have the opportunity to talk to people daily, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try your skills and find out what works best for you. The more conversations you have with various people, the more you’ll learn about the flow of conversations, and how different people react in different circumstances.

Wrapping Things Up

Becoming a person who listens to understand rather than listening to reply isn’t always easy. For some, it comes naturally, while for others, it takes great dedication and practice. If you’re not great at it or find yourself struggling to master some of these tips, remember that it takes time and that it will come to you with practice.

Anyone can become a great listener. You can always ask others for feedback when a conversation was over. If you can find a mentor or someone you believe to be great at active listening, they’ll be able to give you more personalized advice after they’re seen you in action.

However, your friends and family are the perfect places to start. Don’t be afraid to ask and listen with an open mind to how they feel conversations often go with you. It’s all part of the learning process!

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