Hearing what someone says, and listening to their words, are not the same thing. There are fundamental differences between them. Listening can be harder work than hearing, but it’s important to have people in our lives who listen to us and to listen to them in return.
The dictionary defines hearing as: “the process, function or power of perceiving sound”. When we hear something, we’re aware of the noise or sound it makes, but we don’t necessarily interpret or make sense of it. Hearing is a physiological act; it relates to our physical biology. Sometimes we will hear things subconsciously. It’s not always within our control.
Listening, on the other hand, is defined as “to pay attention to sound” or “to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration”. To listen, we have to interpret the sound(s) that we hear. We pay attention to them, process them, and try to make sense of them. It’s a conscious, psychological process.
The Science Of Hearing
When sound reaches our ear, it goes on a journey to convert it from a soundwave to an electrical signal. Soundwaves start at our outer ear, then travel through our ear canal until they reach our eardrum, causing it to vibrate. Three tiny bones in our ear receive these vibrations, then send them towards our inner ear. Once in the inner ear, soundwaves go through a serious of steps, which end with them becoming electrical signals. These signals are carried to our brain where they’re turned into a sound that we can understand.
Auditory processing encompasses everything that happens along the pathway from our inner ear to our brain and the way our brain processes sound once it receives it. It includes ‘tuning in’ to sound, distinguishing between different sounds, the number of sounds we can listen to at the same time, noticing differences in tone, speed and pitch, remembering and recalling information, our perception of volume, and the way we process sounds against any background noise.
The Science Of Listening
Listening, on the other hand, is a psychological process. The way we listen can differ depending on what we’re listening to, and the conditions we’re in. Research into how we listen is ongoing, but we do know that it can be linked to our working memory, long-term memory, vocabulary ‘store’, executive function, and attention. Studies have also shown that we interpret ‘speech’ sounds differently to other sounds.
Ideally, when someone speaks, our brain quickly matches their words with words in our well-organised mental vocabulary ‘store’, enabling us to understand what they’re saying. In less-than-ideal situations, we rely on alternative methods of understanding speech. This could include using our existing knowledge of sounds and tapping into our long-term memory to try and fill in gaps in the information we’ve heard. It’s similar to the way children learn to read – if they come to a word that’s new to them, most children will try to ‘sound it out’ and/or make sense of the word within the context of the rest of the sentence.
Listening Isn’t All About Words
When we listen to someone, we don’t just hear and interpret their words; often, we’ll pick up on their tone of voice, volume, and speed, too. If we know someone well then we can sometimes use this information to interpret their mood. For example, they might speak more quickly when anxious.
Non-verbal communication includes gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, whether a person is fiddling with something, crying, or any other action that communicates something to us without using verbal sounds. It can sometimes tell us as much as verbal communication.
When interpreting a person’s verbal and non-verbal communication, it’s worth being aware of their ‘norm’. For example, it’s commonly stated that if someone doesn’t give eye contact then they’re more likely to be lying. But for someone who’s blind, neurodivergent, anxious, or just generally not a fan of eye contact, their ‘norm’ might be to look away. In a case like this, giving eye contact might be more significant than avoiding it. For them, eye contact might signify that they’re communicating something of importance.
We might have heard the term ‘active listening’ before, but not know means in practice. Active listening doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but the good news that it’s a skill that can be improved over time.
When we’re actively listening, we focus on the person who’s speaking to try and fully understand what it is they’re communicating. We give the speaker time and try not to interrupt. If we’re unsure of something they’ve said, we ask questions, and we’ll often repeat what the speaker has said in our own words to check our understanding.
When active listening, we’re actively involved in the conversation.
Why Is Active Listening Important?
Active listening is important because it allows us to fully understand what’s being said to us. Through this understanding, we forge meaningful connections with one another. By actively listening, we’re showing that we respect the speaker and view what they say as important and worthwhile. This is particularly important if the speaker is talking about something that they find difficult to talk about.
Some Tips For Actively Listening
Active listening is a skill that we can build over time. To improve our listening skills, we could work on specific things. For example, we could:
- Practice sitting in silence (or at least in quiet!). It can feel really uncomfortable at first, but we should feel easier the more we do it
- Be curious. Practice asking questions.
- Tune in. In busy, noisy places, try and tune in to specific sounds. For example, if we’re in a coffee shop, we could tune in to the babbling of a baby at a nearby table or the clink of coins as people pay for their drinks.
- Find patterns in mundane sounds like the washing machine or dishwasher. Tune into them, do they have a particular rhythm? Is it consistent or does it change? Can we identify which part of the cycle they’re in by the sound they make?
- Be patient. Give others time to speak. Try to avoid ‘jumping in’.
- Be open to other people’s experiences and opinions. We might not agree with everything they say, but through actively listening, we can work to understand their position and have meaningful discussions around our differing opinions.
- Think about our responses. We don’t need to respond to things immediately. Practice taking time to consider what’s been said before formulating a reply.
- Use repetition. By repeating what we’ve heard and understood, we can check our understanding and show that we have listened to what’s been said.
We Don’t All Listen Or Communicate In The Same Way
Whenever we discuss communication and listening, it’s important to note that we’re all different, so we’ll prefer different communication styles.
For some, sitting in a quiet space with a cuppa in hand, facing one other person is their favourite way to communicate. Others find that deeply uncomfortable and have their most candid conversations when walking the dog or going on a drive.
Lots of ‘listening’ articles discuss eye contact and responsive body language, such as ‘leaning forwards’. They also talk about listening without distractions. Although this might work for many people, for some these ‘typical’ conversation styles may not be for them; they might hate eye contact, have limited body language, and listen most effectively when doodling.
Some people are comfortable chatting away about everyday ‘stuff’, but find it hard to discuss ‘difficult’ topics. Others need lots of time to say what’s on their mind. Some people find open communication really difficult and prefer a question-and-answer style conversation while others find that restrictive and frustrating.
As with everything else in life, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ method for an effective conversation and we can’t assume that someone isn’t listening to us based on a generalised idea of what active listening looks like. Through getting to know people, we will learn how they prefer to communicate and we’ll learn to spot when they’re hearing, and when they’re actively listening.
We Don’t Have To Hear To Listen
For some of us, hearing isn’t possible. This could be because we’re deaf or hard of hearing. We might have a sensory processing disorder and struggle to hear, differentiate, or process different noises.
Some of us struggle with phones, in-person conversation or video chat and communicate by writing things down, instead. Others struggle to speak at all and rely on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices.
Listening doesn’t have to rely on our ability to perceive sound. We can ‘listen’ to sign language, written text, assistive technology, or other forms of communication.
Time And Place
We don’t have to actively listen to every single thing that’s said to us. Different situations require different communication styles.
By becoming aware of the difference between hearing and listening, we can learn to notice when we hear, passively listen, and actively listen. This allows us to think about skills we might want to improve, to enable us to have more effective and supportive conversations.
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