Active vs. Passive Listening: Which is your Default?

A while back, I was researching for an came article based on speaking and listening, and I came across the rather fabulous TED speaker Julian Treasure. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to communication.

A lot of what I learned from Mr. Treasure has stayed with me, but one thing in particular comes back again and again, which is what he says about listening positions. In the same way as one might move to different positions when taking a photograph – something which may completely alter both the picture, our perception of it and the overall meaning attributed to it – one might also consider the angle from which they are listening.

Essentially, we’re thinking about how we’re listening.

I know it sounds a little out-there, but it’s really just plain old common sense. Because if you think about it, we all listen from different angles, all of the time. Indeed, it serves us to do so.

Julian Treasure talks about a number of different listening positions, but today I just want to briefly look at Active vs. Passive Listening Positions.

When you’re engaged in Active Listening, you’re making a deliberate effort to give your attention to what’s being said. You might give non-verbal cues to show that you’re listening along the way; you might become involved in a discussion with the person speaking. Whatever the case, your focus here is on listening.

Passive listening, in contrast, requires less effort – there’s no interaction or response required. I tend to this of this as just hearing, rather than listening, because our ears take in the noise but don’t really take the time or effort to process it and find meaning.

girls phones

There’s a time and a place for both of these listening positions. If your boss drags you into a meeting at work unexpectedly or you’re receiving test results from your doctor or you’re being proposed to – you’re very likely going to be in a state of Active Listening. Whereas if you’re listening to an Audiobook as you clean the loo, you’re probably going to fall into Passive Listening.

The problem I think is, that in today’s over-stimulated and ultra-distracted world, Passive Listening – or hearing – has become our default state.

Even when people are speaking to us, face to face, demanding real-time responses and actual human interaction, how many of us find that our attention is drifting to the beep of our phone and who that might be and what it could be about and well I may as well answer it now?

How many of us find that we’re consistently giving more of our attention to conversations with people who aren’t even in the room, than to a partner or loved one who is standing right in front of us?

In situations like this, Active Listening should be our default – not passive.

And this just isn’t good, folks; not for our focus, our wellbeing, our relationships or our spirits.

So whilst I don’t think anyone could manage to stay in a place of Active Listening all of the time, it might be useful to at least check-in with yourself a few times a day, and ask yourself which one you’re using.

Building up a self-awareness of how often you’re really listening and how often you’re just hearing, is the first step to listening more.

And as listening is the means by which we find meaning through sound; it’s also the first step to finding greater meaning in your life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.