Every day, it appears that we are inundated with information. I don't know about you, but it can be difficult for me to unplug and not feel the need to be in front of a screen or talking to someone.
It appears that we are constantly digesting information and communicating with others in some form or another. With so much information bombarding us from every direction, it's easy to become distracted and fail to give important issues the attention they deserve. It is very easy to default to passive listening almost all of the time.
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Is it better to listen passively or actively?
Is one better than the other when it comes to active vs. passive listening? As we will see in the overall picture, one is superior to the other in many situations but not in all.
People who communicate clearly have happier and more fulfilling relationships. Uncertain or incomplete communication causes a great deal of distress. It's easy to forget that listening accounts for half of all interpersonal communication. Some may argue that it is more important than the speaking portion.
Both active and passive listening are effective in certain situations. Continue reading to learn the distinction between active and passive listening and whether one is superior to the other.
Listening While Passively
So, what exactly is passive listening? Passive listening is when you hear something or someone without paying full attention to it. It is typically one-sided communication with little to no feedback on what is said or listened to. Other than hearing what is being said, it requires very little effort, and even then, the passive listener may miss parts of the conversation because they are not fully paying attention.
A passive listener will typically not even nod his or her head in agreement, maintain eye contact, or give any indication that he or she is listening. We have a tendency to fall into passive listening mode quite frequently, which is fine in many cases.
Situations That Work
Passive listening is appropriate in a wide range of situations. Consider it ideal for the majority of the time when you are multitasking.
What I'm doing right now is a great example. I'm writing this article while listening to music. I'm far more focused on writing this article than I am on the music I'm listening to. I occasionally notice what song is playing and either sing along in my head or simply acknowledge the music, but I'm not paying attention. Multitasking and passive listening go well together.
Other situations in which this is appropriate include:
- Working out while listening to music or the news
- Catching up on work emails while watching television
- Checking your phone while listening to a speaker at a conference in which you are not particularly interested
- Listening in on a multi-hour product update meeting for the entire company
- Allowing your spouse to launch into a lengthy rant about how terrible their day at work was.
- Hearing your child request ice cream for the sixth time in one minute
As you might expect, active listening differs from passive listening. When you actively listen, you focus your attention in order to fully understand and comprehend what someone is saying. In many cases, you will provide feedback intermittently or when the person speaking has finished speaking.
You are giving the person and the information your undivided attention in order to fully comprehend what is being said. You are fully present in the moment, focusing all of your attention and energy on the person speaking and acknowledging them verbally and nonverbally.
- As you can see, active listening is appropriate for a wide range of situations.
- Situations That Work
- When your spouse or significant other wishes to discuss a serious matter with you.
- Speaking with your boss about taking on the leadership of a large project initiative
- Business meetings in which you play an active role and have responsibilities
- Almost every situation in which the subject is more serious and you are actively involved in the relationship
- Listening to a good friend share their recent challenges with you and responding with your input and thoughts
- Talking to your children as they tell you about any difficulties they are experiencing or the assistance they require
When Active Listening Is Preferable
Being an active listener in any interaction where the relationship and the subject matter are important is a simple rule to follow. When you need to really absorb the information being disseminated, you should use your active listening skills.
This could be when your spouse wants to talk about something serious, or when your boss wants to talk about a big project that is coming up. It could be your adolescent daughter wanting to talk to you about the difficulties she is experiencing at school, or it could be your best friend discussing his troubled relationship.
When you need to be fully present and pay attention, actively listening is the way to go
Passive listening, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable when it is not necessary to ensure that you are getting every detail or to demonstrate to the speaker that you are absorbing the information.
One simple test is to ask yourself if what you're hearing needs to be remembered and possibly acted upon. If the answer is no, and you can imagine yourself multitasking while listening, then passive listening is perfectly fine.
Do you think you could benefit from some assistance in honing your active listening skills? Continue reading to find out how!
How to Enhance Your Active Listening Capabilities
Active listening skills are beneficial in all major relationships. Some people are naturally gifted at it, while others, such as therapists, are trained to be so. It's something that a little practice can help with.
Here are some practical suggestions to help you improve your active listening skills.
1. Keep External and Internal Distractions to a Minimum
External is a breeze. Put your phone down and avoid looking at the computer monitor while the other person is speaking. Do whatever is necessary to eliminate external distractions.
Internal requires a little more practice. Stop and refocus your attention on what the other person is saying whenever you notice your mind wandering away from what they are saying. It takes practice, but you can tune out your own internal noise.
2. Pay Attention to the Meaning and Context of Their Words
It is critical to pay close attention to the words spoken by someone (content), as well as to how the words and ideas are used (context). The words will tell you exactly what the other person is saying.
Keeping an ear to the ground will allow you to pick up on common themes or underlying issues that aren't always explicitly stated. It is about listening to the entire set of words and ideas.
3. Keep Eye Contact
Maintain as much eye contact as possible without being overbearing. You don't want to look into the other person's eyes for 10 minutes without blinking – that's a little much. The key here is to maintain fairly consistent eye contact while the other person is speaking. It will show them that you are truly interested in them.
And speaking of which…
4. Pay Attention to Your Body Language
Both your own and the other person's body language are important. You want to exude the type of body language that indicates you are paying attention.
Your body should be facing the person speaking and leaning slightly towards them. It's also a good idea to pay attention to the other person's body language while they're speaking. Remember that nonverbal communication accounts for a large portion of communication.
5. Be aware of Emotion
When you observe the emotion with which someone tells you something, you can learn a lot. Most people, as we all know, do not deliver information in a robotic-like monologue. When someone is telling us something, we can tell if they are happy, sad, angry, hurt, or excited. When the other person is talking to you, pay attention to the type of emotion they are displaying.
6. Be At Ease With Silence
When there is a gap or an extended silence in a conversation, most of us become very uncomfortable. We feel compelled to fill that quiet space with noise, usually our own voices. It's a completely natural nervous reaction.
It's important to remember that allowing a pause or gap in the conversation to draw out and continue can help allow the other person's thoughts to flow naturally. A fill in the blank statement will frequently interrupt a train of thought. Allow the silence to linger for a few moments to allow the other person's thought process to flow freely.
7. Verbally Encourage
If the other person appears to be in need of some verbal encouragement, feel free to offer it. When sharing something important, it's natural to feel apprehensive. Knowing that the other person is encouraging us to continue can be very beneficial, as it gives us more confidence in what we are saying.
8. For greater clarity, ask open-ended questions
It's sometimes a good idea to ask a question to ensure that you fully understand the story or message. It is usually preferable to ask open-ended questions because they allow the speaker to elaborate on the story rather than providing a yes or no answer.
Questions that can be answered with a yes or no tend to slow down or stop the story entirely. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are more likely to elicit additional information and an expanded story or context.
9. Encouragement and affirmation
If necessary, encourage the person to continue speaking or tell them they are doing an excellent job. This will aid in the development of trust and make the other person feel more at ease when speaking with you.
You should also confirm that you completely understand what the other person is saying. Nothing beats the feeling of being understood. It is one of the most fundamental human needs and can go a long way in a conversation like this.
Is there a difference between active and passive listening?
As we've seen, depending on the situation, both active and passive listening have their uses. Neither is truly superior to the other.
Passive listening works well in situations where you do not need to devote your full attention to someone or something and can multitask.
However, there are times when using your active listening skills is far more advantageous. It is best to use your active listening skills when something important needs to be shared between individuals.
If your active listening skills could use some work, try the techniques listed above. Your important relationships will appreciate it.
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