You may have heard the terms passive and active listening before. They are often pitted against one another as though passive listening is bad and active listening is superior. However, they are each very different and thus they are useful in different types of situations. Passive listening is pretty instinctual for us to implement, but active listening takes a couple of skills. Here are the differences between passive vs active listening and when to use each.
Original photo by Kreative Beginnings Photography
Passive listening involves quietly taking in information with little to no outward reaction. Non-committal words words are sometimes used such as “Hmm,” “I see,” “Interesting,” “Oh yeah,” and so on.
As a passive listener, you are still paying attention and you communicate this engagement through your facial expressions and body language. Examples of these types of behaviours include facing the speaker, making eye contact, leaning in toward the speaker, having an open, relaxed posture (e.g., not having arms crossed in front of the chest), and nodding or shaking your head.
Listening to a speaker during a presentation or meeting involves passive listening. In fact, even though there is not another person physically present, listening to radio music, television shows, podcasts, etc. are all also examples of when we use passive listening.
Now one-on-one conversations is where active listening really shines. There are two main skills involved in active listening: perception checking and paraphrasing. These two processes take awareness, intention, and consistent practice. It is worth it though because they will improve the quality of your communication and connection in your interpersonal relationships.
Perception checking involves figuring out how the speaker is feeling based off of what they have told you and what you have seen. You state the information the speaker has given you, your interpretation, and then ask for confirmation or clarification. This form of open communication ensures your own comprehension which greatly reduces the possibility of making false assumptions. It also allows the other person to know they are understood.
Paraphrasing is telling the speaker what they have said but in your own words. Again, this allows you to check that you understand and also ensures the speaker that they are being understood. If your paraphrase doesn’t sound quite right to the speaker, they then have the opportunity to clarify. Sometimes it’s also helpful for the speaker to hear what they have said by increasing their own understanding of the situation.
Naturally, the above body language applies to active listening as well. Facing the speaker, making eye contact, leaning in, and so on communicate that you are paying attention and engaged in the conversation.
Not Bad, Just Different
So there is no true winner in the passive vs active listening fight. As you can see, the best type of listening to engage in is specific to your situation. Neither one is better than the other; they are each simply better suited to certain circumstances.
It would be disruptive for you to paraphrase back what a conference speaker is saying throughout their public presentation. Just as it may be hurtful to refrain from speaking while a friend is venting about a troubling situation. This knowledge will allow you to listen in the most appropriate and effective manner.
I’ve created a cheat sheet to help you remember the basics of passive vs active listening. You can download it and keep it for future reference to help you engage in the best type of listening for your situation.
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