Hearing vs. Listening

Alan BelniakGeneral, Marketing5 Comments

"What?  Hmm?  Oh yeah - I heard you.  Mmm hmm."

"What? Hmm? Oh yeah - I heard you. Mmm hmm."

“Oh, I heard you.  I just wasn’t listening to you.”

This is a line my wife and I playfully trade back and forth around the house when talking about who is going to take out the trash, or responding to a favor request, or the response to a polite reminder. It’s all in jest, and we get a little chuckle out of it.

It got me thinking to the pure essence of the phrase, and specifically the two words in there that make up the humor: hear and listen.  Casually, we equate them, or at least consider them rough synonyms.  But when we really need to use them in our speech, do we differentiate them?  Maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.

  • I consider ‘hear’ to be the rough equivalent of ‘acknowledge’.  The sounds from your mouth made it to my ears; I heard you.  When the coffee barista repeats the drink back to the caller/cashier, he heard what she said.  A read receipt received in an e-mail program is an acknowledgment that it was at least opened.

But was the message consumed?  Was it dissected, interrogated, analyzed, and probed?  (OK, maybe way too much detail for a coffee call, but you get the point, I hope).  Listening requires a bit of extra effort.  One casual definition I read (I so wanted to write this without quote actual dictionary definitions) is as follows: “to hear with intention”.  I like that.  It requires that you pick apart what was said.  It makes you think.

  • The sound came to my ears, and I processed it.  The coffee barista gets the message, and then relays something back about an out-of-stock ingredient.  The e-mail message is actually replied to with something along the lines of, “Thanks for your message, and it got me thinking…”

Many professional development classes talk about active listening, and that requires really consuming the content of what you heard, processing it, and acting on it (which is sometimes just nodding).  I’ve tried in the past (and will continue to do so) to be a better listener.  One way that I do this is to re-phrase what I’ve heard back to the other person (this isn’t a new trick by any means; I’m just sharing what works for me).  This has worked wonders because, on the spot, if I don’t have the essence of the conversation, we can clarify.

There’s a great scene in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction that has Uma Thurman asking John Travolta, while they are on a date: “Do you listen?  Or do you wait to talk?”  John replies something to the effect of, “I wait to talk, but I’m trying to listen more.”

Listening is important not only in marketing, but in business and general human interactions.  It moves the recipient of the message from the passive stage to the active stage.  It changes the dynamic from one participant to two (or more).  It turns one (or two or more) bullhorns into a telephone.

What’s your take?  Are the words synonymous to you?  How do you define them?  How do you practice active listening?

image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/baking_in_pearls