Are We Hearing and Not Listening?

Nowadays, we interact regularly with other individuals. The communication is made frequently, however conversations may not be as efficient and meaningful as expected. It could be because we are having tight deadlines and different tasks to be completed or we are drifted into our thoughts. For example, we are exhausted after a long-haul business flight and trying to finish all urgent tasks to get back home and lie on the sofa; or we try to protect our perspectives instead of perceiving new ideas from others. Eventually, we mostly wind up hearing and not listening.

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Hearing vs. Listening

According to the author Marvin Gottlieb, a good listening consists of four elements: attention (an ability to focus both visually and verbally), hearing (the act of opening the ears to perceive the information), understanding (the act of implying the received information), and remembering (the ability to take in that meaningful information into our memory storage). As can be seen, hearing is one important part of listening but it alone does not construct a good listening performance.

While those two terms are often being used interchangeably, they have many noticeable differences which can help define the good listeners wherever we are. We receive sounds through hearing, which is a passive, involuntary, sensory process. It is considered a physiological reaction to sound and does not need a lot of focus. You may hear cars or sirens outside, your neighbours’ party, and people arguing on the nearby street, for example.

On the contrast side, listening is an active, deliberate, and purposeful process that takes your full attention to make meaning of the words and sounds you hear, to which you may form an emotional reaction. Active listening is defined as hearing with the intention of understanding. For example, if you are listening to someone talk about a grief in their life, you may find yourself giving full attention. You develop a sense of their experience and even you will put yourself in their shoes to understand how that situation can affect them.

Signs to Know We Are Not Listening

“Listening does not mean simply maintaining a polite silence while you are rehearsing in your mind the speech you are going to make the next time you can grab a conversational opening. Nor does listening mean waiting alertly for the flaws in the other fellow’s argument so that later you can mow him down.” – S. I. Hayakawa in “The Use and Misuse of Language”.

We often insist that we are listening to others, and yet we miss most of the conversations and are not able to recall important information that has been received. The following signs help you know when you are not listening or listening effectively.

  • Pay attention to only a part of the conversation. This is so-called a selective listening style. We only choose to focus on what is important to us, which can be only a small portion of the speaker’s messages.
  • Lack of attention. This refers to listeners who are not paying attention fully to the speaker. We may find ourselves frequently distracted and preoccupied with other things, which means they may miss the majority of what the speaker has to say. Listeners, pursuing this style, can do something else in the middle of the conversations, for instance searching for tools, answering emails or even working.
  • Listen for defending. In this case, listeners misinterpret simple comments or information as personal assaults. We may find ourselves mostly defend our perspectives and take things personally. A good way to spot this type of listening is “I understand, but…” as when this is used, listeners disregard what they have heard and only want to give a response and/or hear what they prefer.
  • Use a single word as a response. Responses like “Uh-huh”, “Okay, “Alright”, “Yeah”, “Yes” may show that the listeners are not listening at all or do not find themselves interested in the topic. As a result, no contributed questions are made to enrich the conversations which are seemingly one-sided. 

Improve Listening Skills with Practical and Small Steps

Understanding that we are all busy and having tight deadlines at some points, here are some practical and small steps to help you improve your listening skills and therefore your overall conversation quality.

  • If possible, make eye contact with the speaker.
  • Be attentive and keep an ear out for new ideas.
  • Look for areas in the messages that interest you.
  • Content is what matters, not how it is delivered.
  • Be patient and only interrupt if urgent and necessary.
  • Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  • Distractions must be avoided.
  • Keep an open mind and be adaptable.
  • Ask questions and provide comments to clarify the received messages before giving a response.
  • Prepare yourself by anticipating, summarising, investigating the facts, and reading between the lines.

At work, it is also important to set the limit of irrelevant talks (5-10 minutes per day), for instance, an update on personal lives or small funny jokes. The long and non-work conversations may be the major cause of losing the attention from the listeners as earlier mentioned, they may have boxes to tick and things to complete on their tables.

  • Copps, M. J. 2018. 5 Signs You’re Not Listening. Available at:

  • Gupta, S. 2021. Hearing vs. Listening: Learn the Difference and How Each Impact Mental Health. Available at:

  • Maryville University. How to Be a Better Listener: Exploring 4 Types of Listening. Available at:

  • Nordquist, R. 2019. The Definition of Listening and How to Do It Well. Available at:

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