5.1 Listening Versus Hearing

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the differences between listening and hearing.
  • Explain the benefits of listening.

“Are you listening to me?” You may have been asked this question because the speaker thinks you are nodding off or daydreaming. Many mistakenly think of listening as a “passive” activity: We need to sit there and let words wash over us. Yet the reality is different. Effective listening demands active participation.

In our sender-oriented society, listening is often overlooked as an essential part of the communication process. Still, research shows that adults spend about 45 % of their time listening, more than any other communicative activity. In some contexts, we spend even more time listening than that. On average, workers spend 55 % of their workday listening, and managers spend about 63 % listening (Hargie, 2011).

The Oprah Magazine featured a cover article titled, “How to Talk So People Really Listen: Four Ways to Make Yourself Heard.” This title leads us to expect a list of ways to leave listening to others and insists that they do so, but the article contains a surprise ending. The final piece of advice is this: “You can’t go wrong by showing interest in what other people say and making them feel important. In other words, the better you listen, the more you’ll be listened to” (Jarvis, 2009).

The adage, “We have two ears but only one mouth,” reminds us that listening is often even more important than talking. Still, many of us think that listening is the same as hearing and therefore put minimal effort into the process. The reality is quite different.

Listening versus Hearing

Hearing is an automatic brain response to sound that requires no effort. Most of the time, we are surrounded by sounds like airplanes, lawnmowers, furnace blowers, the rattling of pots and pans, and so on. We hear those incidental sounds, and unless we have a reason to do otherwise, we train ourselves to ignore them. We learn to filter out sounds that mean little to us, just as we choose to hear our ringing phones and other sounds that are more important to us.


The box on the left is labelled "Hearing" and has three bullet points labelled accidental, involuntary and effortless.  The box on the right is labelled "Listening" and has three bullet points labelled focused, voluntary and intentional.
Figure 5.1.1. Hearing does not equal listening—the image of two boxes.

On the other hand, listening is purposeful and focused rather than accidental. As a result, it requires motivation and effort. Listening is active, focused, concentrated attention to understanding the meanings expressed by a speaker. We do not always listen at our best; later, we will examine some reasons for this and strategies for becoming more active critical listeners.

Benefits of Listening

Today, you can gain much information and entertainment through reading and electronic recordings rather than real-time listening. If you become distracted and let your attention wander, you can go back and replay a recording. However, much of what we need to hear at work and in our relationships is not recorded and can not be replayed.  There are many benefits to listening effectively and competently in real-time, including the compelling benefits discussed next.

Since listening is a primary means of learning new information, good listening skills help us complete tasks effectively at home, work or school and get things done. Second, when we listen attentively to others, we support them; thus, effective listening helps us build and maintain satisfying relationships with those who are important to us. Third, listening to what others say about us helps us develop an accurate self-concept, which can help us put our best foot forward and communicate our identity in the best way possible. Fourth, practical listening skills can help us be better students and more successful professionals.

Key Takeaways

  • Hearing is the physiological process of attending to sound within one’s environment; listening is a focused, concentrated approach to understanding the message a source sends.
  • Learning how to be an effective listener has numerous advantages. Effective listening can help you complete tasks efficiently, become a better partner in your relationships, serve as a reality check for your self-identity, become a better student, and even improve your public speaking abilities.


Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. Routledge.

Jarvis, T. (2009, November). How to talk so people  listen: Four ways to make yourself heard. O, the Oprah Magazinehttp://www.oprah.com/relationships/Communication-Skills-How-to-Make-Yourself-Heard

Image Attribution

Figure 5.1.1. Hearing vs. Listening by Anonymous. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

McClaren, C., Romaniuk, D., McGovern, B., Kamstra-Cooper, K., Connell, M., Akerman, E., & Petrie. P. (n.d.). Therapeutic relationships in the 21st century. Toronto Metropolitan University. https://pressbooks.library.ryerson.ca/tncr

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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