Let me be presumptive for a moment – you’ve experienced frustration when you feel the person you are talking to you isn’t listening. From experience, we all recognize there is a difference between listening and hearing. We also all know how it feels. And we are also all guilty of doing it.
So, what’s the difference, and what does it all mean?
Hearing vs. Listening
Hearing is the act of perceiving sound, either auditorily through your ear or by physically feeling the sound vibrations, like the bass or percussions in music. Listening is much more complicated and requires more effort, but it is how you connect with people in a meaningful way.
Hearing is an unconscious activity. Naturally, you are aware of only about 5 percent of typically daily brain activity. Meaning 95 percent of what your brain is doing is entirely unconscious. Many of the decisions, thoughts, actions, and feelings you have, have roots, i.e., habits, that began long before you were aware of them.
If everything were at the forefront of your attention, it would be absolute chaos. It would be too much information to sort through. Your brain attempts to be as efficient as possible, filtering out what is considered unnecessary and bringing only essential information forward.
Your brain always registers what you “hear.” You hear only when your unconscious decides you should listen. I’m sorry if this momentarily shatters the idea of free will. Your high-level reasoning is based on multiple neural links that create your snap judgments, impulses, or distractions.
And that brings me to the listening part. Listening is processing what was heard and attaching understanding, meaning, purpose, and feeling to it. And often, the meaning you stick to it is why your unconscious brings it to your attention.
Listening is a Skill
The difference between hearing and listening is that listening is a skill. Listening takes effort as you work to understand what was heard and attach meaning to it. And your unconscious brain takes the wheel and will pull what it can from your memory bank to help you.
But the problem with that is it can cause you not to hear what was said. As your listening to someone, they may say a word that triggers your unconscious into remembering a past experience, shifting you into anger or anxiety. Now you’re responding from this headspace, which may be inaccurate for the actual conversation at hand.
Or, perhaps you vaguely register a food commercial on the television in the background, and you remember you haven’t eaten yet, and pizza sounds delicious right now, and perhaps the person you’re talking to would like some too. And now you’re interrupting them to ask if they would like some pizza as well.
Why It Hurts When You’re Not Listening
As a human being, you have an innate need for community. To be around those you care for and feel cared for by them as well. And with that comes the need to be heard. When you think you are not heard, that someone isn’t listening, it hurts. I can make you feel worthless, stupid, or disposable – whether or not that was the other’s intention, it’s what you take away.
And for those struggling with hearing loss, this is the unfortunate take away when they say, “what?” However natural and expected it is to ask for repetition or clarification because you cannot hear, often the one who is speaking with you feels unheard. And that feeling hurts. So, they may respond with frustrated undertones or give up, which only frustrates you, leading to a vicious cycle.
So, what’s the solution? We can’t chalk it up to there’s a difference between hearing and listening and that it’s too hard to do. Listening is essential to your relationships. The ambivalence between these options can be sticky, making it hard to know what to do.
How to Work Towards Effective Communication
Listening isn’t necessarily a checklist of dos and don’ts. Instead, it’s a state of mind. It is switching away from your monkey mind into a receptive mode.
But to do that isn’t easy. Your monkey mind naturally wants to take over, jumping from thought to thought like a monkey swings on branches. Your unconscious naturally hijacks your attention, clouds your perception, and distracts you from the conversation at hand. And then you add any further physical or mental limitations, and it’s an even higher mountain to overcome.
But it’s not impossible – with a few considerations to implement if they work for you.
Foundations of Listening:
- Ensure the surroundings are ideal for having a conversation. Often, you’re motivated to ask your question or state what comes to mind, and the distractions of the environment you’re in isn’t a consideration. If it is a meaningful conversation to be had, reduce as many distractions as possible. Turn off the game, mute the television, put down the phone. Get close and face to face.
- Focus on the words and try to understand what meaning they are attaching to them. When someone is talking to you, they are trying to convey their world and their understanding of it. Placing your spin on their words only leads to miscommunication and feeling unheard.
- Try not to interrupt. This can be very hard, but essential to being heard. The more often you interrupt or talk over the other person, the more they will talk louder or not talk at all – neither ideal.
- Ask clarifying, open-ended questions. We feel most heard when we feel understood. But no one knows you better than yourself. You can’t assume you understand without confirming it first.
- Work to tame your unconscious, monkey mind. To be a good listener, one must be present. To be present, one must be mindful. Practicing mindfulness helps you slow down to experience life as it is, not at the mercy of your thoughts or emotions. You can learn to react less to your interpretations of the words and more to the meaning that is trying to be conveyed.
There is a difference between listening and hearing – and no one gets it right all the time. But the more you practice listening, the more your relationships with flourish.