Listening vs Hearing: There Is a Difference

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Three weeks ago, I wrote a post that had some advice for helping those who have anxiety and possibly many other mental health issues.  It was THIS ONE!  In the comments, I began have some brief chats about the concept of listening and hearing.  Not in those specific terms and I do think I got them mixed up.  The above graphic helps define the two and it appears I swapped them in my head.  For that, I apologize.

As I’ve said, it’s very important to talk to people with anxiety, but you don’t want to force the conversation.  You also want to avoid throwing in your own ideas and trying to guide their own thought processes.  Asking questions can work if the mood is right and you can make suggestions in a way that they aren’t orders.  Again, this is only if the person is clearly open to a conversation instead of simply being listened to.  So, you have to work more with your ears than your mouth if you want to help.

That’s what a lot of things boil down to here.  A feeling of isolation because nobody understands you can be a part of nearly every mental illness.  There’s a lot of internal analysis that runs in circle or goes wild, which makes one wonder if anyone else has this problem.  Even if you know that you have anxiety, you may start to feel like you have a different ‘flavor’ than other people.  It can be an odd combination of feeling special and broken at the same time.  How could anyone understand when you aren’t a textbook example?  That’s a dangerous thought even when you are getting help.

So, where does listening and hearing come in?  A person will feel like they’ve been understood if they know you’re listening.  This can be born from hearing, but there’s a danger with staying in that involuntary stage.  Yes, you will get the words as they go into your ears, but they could simply pass through.  You can forget what is being said, react the wrong way, or jump to an improper conclusion.  There’s also some clear body language that one does when only hearing a person talk.  For example, the eyes might go to the side a bit or they do the ‘uh-huh’ stuff.  I will admit that I do this myself.  Part of it is a fear of eye-contact that I’ve had since I was a teenager.  So, I could be wrong on this.

Now, what comes from listening?  Well, it means you’ve paid attention to the words and situation that is being described.  A deeper understanding comes through here.  It’s no longer ‘this person has anxiety’, but ‘this person has anxiety due to this and it makes them feel exactly this way’.  You can find more comfortable openings to ask questions instead of barging in.  Again, if the situation allows for it.  A listener might find that they can’t do anything in the moment, but afterwards they can do some research and come to a deeper understanding for the next interaction.  A lot of ways to help people with anxiety is simply to understand what they are going through and why.  This act alone could make them feel like they aren’t as alone as they believed.

Unfortunately, listening isn’t a natural skill for most people.  That would be hearing.  To be able to listen to a person, you need to ‘practice’ and train.  It’s more about honing your ability to concentrate and curtailing any urges to turn the conversation either to yourself or take them over completely.  There’s a lot of ‘best intention’ pitfalls here, which you won’t always recognize until you stumble.  This brings in an important fact:

Never be afraid to apologize for making a mistake.

Maybe you pushed too hard or stopped paying attention.  If it upset the person then you need to apologize and learn from that mistake.  When a suffering friend comes to you, it means you’re on a special list of confidants.  For many, this could be 2-3 since it’s such a sensitive subject.  By not listening or apologizing, you can inadvertently reduce the person’s trusted circle.  It can roll even further out of control by them wondering if the others are the same and they’re simply being humored.  Yeah, it’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, but even if you can’t help, you should at least work to not make things worse.  This is why evolving from hearing to listening helps.

Final tips:

  1. Saying ‘I hear you’ is a terrible phrase.  It rarely comes off as anything other than condescending or a lie.  Try not to use it even if you mean it.
  2. Pay attention to your own body language at times.  If a conversation is going on for a while, your attention might wander a bit.  It’s natural, so you might not be able to stop it.  Just don’t check your watch too often.
  3. One time I do think it can work to interrupt a friend is if you notice that an attack is coming on due to the conversation.  You can make sure by asking, but a suggestion to go someone more comfortable or take a break until they are ready to talk again can be very helpful.  It should be done in a way that doesn’t kill the conversation and makes it clear that you’re worried about them in the moment.  If they want to keep going then let them.
  4. Hearing might seem the easiest path at times.  You could fear that listening might create too deep of an analysis and you end up forgetting the individual.  This is a total legitimate worry.  Yet, staying on the surface means you don’t get the understanding of the source.  The trick is to find a balance.  I do think listening is more important, but there could be situations when hearing is better because letting an analysis statement slip can make things worse.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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30 Responses to Listening vs Hearing: There Is a Difference

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great tips! As you mentioned, listening is a skill we can learn. The body language tip is so important. I’ve had conversations with people who kept checking their phones. Not an encouragement to keep talking.

    I know for myself, sometimes I just need to vent. But some well-meaning people jump in, trying to “fix” the situation with advice, rather than listening to see if advice is even needed at all.


  2. Chuck says:

    Hi Charles,
    I admire you for taking this whole issue on and making it something that not only helps you but helps others. I’m learning a great deal with each post. This one especially, because I admit I often want to share my advice rather than listen to the person in need. Thanks


  3. Great advice, Charles.


  4. “There’s also some clear body language that one does when only hearing a person talk. For example, the eyes might go to the side a bit or they do the ‘uh-huh’ stuff. I will admit that I do this myself. Part of it is a fear of eye-contact that I’ve had since I was a teenager. So, I could be wrong on this.”

    Some people find listening much easier if they don’t have much visual input to deal with at the same time. Others may, like you (and me), have a real aversion to making eye contact. (I hate the “conventional wisdom” that not looking directly at someone’s face indicates either inattention or deceitfulness.)

    Sometimes, a listener will make vague ‘uh-huh’ sounds because they don’t know what to say, but they want to show that they ARE listening and paying attention, and maybe the person they’re listening to just needs to be able to speak about their feelings without interruption.


    • The ‘uh-huh’ is such a double-edged sword. It can help portray listening, but then you get people who assume it’s a knee jerk reaction. It’s hard to tell when you can interject a response.


  5. Very interesting post, I learned a lot from it. One thing I want to mention was already slightly touched on in the last comment about visual input. I’ve found, at least for myself, if I really need or want to concentrate on what’s being said, I’ll close my eyes to focus better. I do wonder what the best way of letting someone know I’m focusing on them instead of dozing off is?


  6. Jennie says:

    Excellent, Charles. Spot on.


  7. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Legends of Windemere blog on the difference between listening and hearing.


  8. I’ve had some training as a counselor and it sounds like you’re describing what’s known as “active listening.” Interesting tip about the “I hear you” phrase. To me, it’s just another way of saying, “I understand,” or even “Couldn’t agree more.” I’ll be more careful with its use in the future.


    • I’ve noticed that various phrases of acknowledgement differ in effect from person to person. I think part of it is exposure. Someone might hear one phrase all the time until it has no meaning while someone else hears it very few times to keep its impact.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting! ‘How could anyone understand when you aren’t a textbook example?’ I especially loved this line. Is anyone really a textbook example though? Everyone’s resilience to their symptoms is different and a textbook example would be based on the signs, right? And the symptoms if they are widely undebated, that is. So, there’s comfort in knowing that we all lay somewhere on a spectrum. Regardless of the distance between us and the textbook sample, we all lay somewhere. And we can find comfort in that 0.01 % of similarity even. Anyway, I’m really enjoying your posts and im heading over to the one you linked above!


    • I assume there had to be a textbook example out there somewhere. The example needs a source. It’s much rarer than many people realize. I like that you mentioned a spectrum. Maybe we should treat all mental illness on a spectrum scale instead of a standard concept. It helped bring more understanding and progress for autism.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’m definite it exists but one shouldn’t feel obligated to meet it. Feel what you feel, and let the professionals realize you. The way I see it, everything exists on a spectrum. It’s a hierarchy, but not really. So, the way i imagine it is that textbook samples exist somewhere on this universal spectrum of, say, anxiety. And everyone, even people who don’t have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, lay somewhere on it. The closer a group is to each other on that spectrum the more they understand one another. So kind of how one person with autism might not understand or even empathize with another autistic individual. So everyone’s lined up with respect to this textbook sample which will always be, in my perspective, grossly overgeneralized so people that are no where near that textbook sample think that they can relate to people with diagnosable anxiety disorders solely for the reason of laying on a spectrum, dedicated to anxiety. I hope I wasn’t too all over the place. I tend to have an abundance of thought spirals haha.


      • The textbook examples might be the center of the spectrum. Everyone deviates from that spot, but it creates a baseline of some kind. At the very least, a few signs can help, but you can’t go for the perfect fit. With autism, there’s a difficulty in connecting and interacting for many of the levels. So, it’s hard to connect there since part of the picture is finding a way to communicate.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, they could very well be! deviation, it’s everything, huh. I see where you’re coming from, and I do agree with what you said about levels! Again, im truly enjoying your work!


      • Thanks. I’m enjoying the discussion too.

        Liked by 1 person

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