What is the Difference Between Passive and Active Listening?

What is the Difference Between Passive and Active Listening?
Listening as a process can be majorly classified as either passive or active listening. We will shed light on what the differences between these types are, and thereby, help you understand the concept better.
SocialMettle Staff
Last Updated: Mar 1, 2018
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Did You Know?
Studies have shown that approximately 30% of what is spoken is not interpreted exactly how we intended it to be.
Listening is not as simple a process as it may seem, in the sense that it has varied nuances attached to it. For instance, did you know that listening can be of two types? It can either be categorized as active or passive listening. Both types are starkly different and have certain characteristics that distinguish one from the other. While passive listening is associated with mere hearing, active listening refers to listening in order to understand.

This SocialMettle article tries to explain the difference between active and passive listening, and how to develop skills for active listening.
Passive Listening Vs. Active Listening
Passive Listening
This form of listening refers to hearing something without the intention of responding to it. It also involves not carrying forth any other activity while listening to the other person, i.e., not responding to what is being said. Thus, passive listening is not very different than the 'hearing' that we do. Which is why, in passive listening, it is quite possible that our mind may drift from the topic of discussion from time to time, or what we are listening to might be relegated to a mere background noise, wherein we may think that we are listening to what is being said, but are, in reality, simply letting things get past our brain.
Listening Lecture
Passive listening is a one-way form of communication, wherein there is no exchange involved with the two parties.

Common examples of this form of listening involve listening to a lecture, watching TV, or listening to the radio.
Active Listening
This form of listening refers to hearing something with the intention of not only listening to understand to what is being said, but to also provide feedback for the same. It is a two-way process where a person listens to understand and asks doubts or provides feedback wherever needed.
In active listening, a person listens to what is being spoken about not merely as a subject, but to get an understanding of what the message means. The person is interested in knowing what the speaker is saying, and he, therefore, listens to the message well. Another important factor in this form of listening is that he does not merely listen to the words that are being said, but also pays close attention to all the non-verbal forms of communication that are taking place―these could involve hand gestures, expressions, voice modulation, eye contact, and the like. By studying all these forms, he gets a better understanding of the message.

Other than listening, this process also involves providing feedback wherever it facilitates better understanding of the message. Thus, a person may ask questions in order to get answers to the doubts he has, thus making his understanding better. Another tool that is frequently used is providing a summary or a paraphrased version of what the other person has spoken such that not only does one get a clearer understanding of the message, but whenever the message is misunderstood, or certain factors are missing, one is able to get a correction for the same.
Two people discussion
Common examples of this form of listening refer to any dialog that we have with people, or an open discussion setup.
Developing Active Listening Skills
For any communication process to succeed, there is a need for all the elements (message, sender, medium, receiver, feedback) to function properly and align together. Which is why, active listening plays a very important role in determining the success of the communication process. Unless the receiver fully understands the message that is being communicated, he cannot provide feedback, and the process cannot be completed. The stress, therefore, always lies on developing active listening skills as opposed to passive listening skills, because active listening ensures that the message that is being dispatched does not remain relegated to a mere background noise, but is completely understood by the listener.

The following steps can be undertaken to develop effective active listening.
Maintain Eye Contact
Eye contact
Make sure that you maintain eye contact at all times. Lack of eye contact or not looking at the speaker while he speaks is not only very disconcerting, but gives the impression that you're not interested in what is being said.
Do Not Get Distracted
While the speaker is talking, do not show signs of restless or getting distracted by constantly looking at your watch, or shuffling your legs, or looking across the room, etc. This will hinder the process of listening and understanding what is being said.
Give Positive Feedback
Make sure that you are provide positive feedback to what is being said via appropriate gestures like nodding your head in affirmation, saying 'um hmm' as acknowledgment, and smiling or maintaining proper facial expressions.
Don't Interrupt the Speaker
Man giving presentation without interrupt
It is considered very rude to stop the speaker mid-sentence and ask questions. Moreover, doing this can cause the speaker to lose his trail of thoughts and forget what he was saying. Thus, if there are any doubts as a listener, one should make a note of the same and get them clarified when the time is appropriate. In the same vein, never finish somebody's sentences for them. This only seems like you listening to 'respond' and not to 'understand'.
Clarify Doubts
Teacher assisting student in lecture
While one should not interrupt a session to get one's queries/doubts answered, it is still necessary that one does get his/her doubts cleared. Ask questions in order to clarify the issue and achieve a better understanding. This will also assure the speaker that you've been listening well.
Paraphrase and Summarize
A very, very important tool in active listening is to be able to paraphrase and summarize what the speaker has been saying in your own words. Use phrases like "So what you're saying is...", "What my understanding from this is...". When you summarize, you ensure the accuracy of your understanding of the speech, such that if you've missed out on anything or misunderstood anything, the speaker can correct you immediately.
Speak Less
While most people would prefer to talk themselves than having to listen to someone else, that is not how active listening works. While there is a need to talk in order to summarize what is being said, or to clarify doubts, it has to be understood that over talking is not the answer. Also, it is not possible to talk and understand at the same time, so one should avoid going overboard with the talking.
While it is important to understand why active listening is an important tool in effective communication, it is just as crucial to develop this form of listening. With the pointers provided in this SocialMettle article, developing active listening skills will not be a very difficult task.