Active Vs. Passive Listening: What’s The Difference?

They’re maintaining eye-contact and nodding slightly now and then. But are they really listening? Do they understand what you’re saying? Do they even care? 

This person is a textbook passive listener. You’re getting no real feedback from them. 

If you’ve ever asked the question, “Why is active listening so important?” it’s “conversations” like this one that answers it.

You want more than a sounding board. You want real engagement. 

So, what does active listening look like? And is it always better? 

Active Vs. Passive Listening 

What are the main differences between active listening and passive listening? 

  • Active listening is best for two-way communication, whereas passive listening is best for one-way communication. 
  • Active listeners react to what they’re hearing — with nonverbal cues, paraphrasing or repetition, and questions; passive listeners do not react. 
  • Active listening requires full attention and an effort to clarify and understand; passive listening requires little (if any) effort. 
  • Active listeners analyze what they’re hearing and summarize or paraphrase it to ensure they understand; passive listeners merely listen. 

Differences aside, how do you practice active listening when the occasion requires it? And how can you encourage your conversation partners to do the same? 

What is Passive Listening?

The passive listener doesn’t have a part in the communication. Their role is to simply listen. This is ideal for situations where a speaker addresses a group of people or when the listener is enjoying music on the radio, a podcast, or theater production. 

It’s not ideal, though, for situations where the one speaking would like some feedback — or at least some proof that the listener is paying attention and making an effort to understand. 

  • Heart-to-heart conversations
  • Doctor-patient conversations
  • Therapist-client conversations
  • Employer-employee conversations

In some cases, the speaker may only want a sounding board, in which case passive listening is all they want. But most people prefer a two-way conversation. 

Passive Listening Examples 

We’re all passive listeners sometimes. Here are some notable examples of when it makes sense to be one:

  • Listening to an audio recording or live audio — podcast, audiobook, music album, radio, Spotify playlists, etc. 
  • Listening to a speaker — giving a presentation, addressing concerns at a meeting, or providing information and insight at a conference or convention
  • Watching a recorded or live performance — movies, TV show, theater productions, Broadway plays, opera, concert, etc. 

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What is Active Listening?

Active listening involves more effort than passive listening. The goal is to fully understand what the other person is saying, to avoid misunderstandings and erroneous assumptions. You do this by means of the following: 

  • Showing attention through encouraging body language and nonverbal cues.
  • Reflecting on and analyzing the other’s words to determine what needs clarifying. 
  • Attending to the other’s nonverbal cues to pick up on what they’re not saying. 
  • Repeating the other’s words or phrases to ensure you heard correctly or to ask for clarification.
  • Paraphrasing — expressing what you’ve heard in your own words to ensure you understand.
  • Asking relevant questions to seek clarification.
  • Summarizing what the other has said.
  • Putting yourself in the other’s shoes to better understand their perspective.

To practice active listening, it’s also important to know what not to do in a conversation: 

  • Do not interrupt what the other is saying — either to finish the other’s sentence or to argue a point.
  • Do not use impatient, dismissive, or closed body language: exaggerated sighs, eye-rolls, shoulder shrugs, glancing at the clock frequently, shaking your head, etc.
  • Do not “pretend listen” with fake or exaggerated body language. It’s transparent and off-putting. 
  • Do not tune them out to think about what you want to say next or how you’re going to refute one of the points they’re trying to make. 
  • Do not offer advice unless the other person asks for it. 
  • Do not make it about you. No hijacking the conversation to make yourself the center of attention. Even if the other person is talking about you, focus on them.

Ideally, whenever two people are talking to each other, both are active listeners. Both give evidence of their full attention and desire to understand, as well as possible, what the other is saying. 

One listener may be more active than the other, especially if one is distracted or wants to talk about something else. But the best conversations are those where both people are fully engaged. And active listening is the best way to ensure that.

Active Listening Examples

The better we get at active listening, the more we practice it. Here are some examples of situations where active listening is critical to the success of the conversation: 

  • A counselor/therapist listening to their client — Active listening is a more efficient way to reach a better understanding of the client than simply listening and taking notes. 
  • A parent listening to their child — Especially when the topic is sensitive, parents should always strive to understand their children and model the kind of listening they want them to learn.
  • Couples listening to each other — Any loving relationship becomes healthier when both partners practice active listening with each other. Neither should be a mute sounding board or emotional sponge for the other. 
  • A doctor listening to a patient — Doctors and all medical professionals who meet with patients- should practice active listening whenever possible to understand what the other is trying to communicate and avoid misdiagnosis. 
  • An employer or manager listening to an employee — In any professional environment, those in leadership positions should commit to practicing active listening whenever an employee needs their attention. And vice-versa. 

How will you use active listening and passive listening?

Now that you know the differences between active listening and passive listening, you know better than to say that active listening is always superior. But you’re also better equipped to practice active listening in one-on-one conversations. 

Think about moments where you grew frustrated with passive listeners or with those who pretended to listen but were only listening for points they could argue with. 

You deserve better. So do all the people in your life who need a good listener. May you always be the listener they need. And may you find the same for yourself.