What Is Passive Listening?

What Is Passive Listening?

We as humans tend to overcomplicate our lives with petty dramas and miscommunications. Our sense of understanding is clouded by our bias judgments and assumptions. Our relationships become a testimony and a backbone of how we are perceived as an individual in this nexus of varying self-expression called life. 

In this modern world filled with complex systems and different languages (both human and programming language) sometimes we get lost in between the lines and somehow the message gets lost in the sea of words and symbols. Be it visual, written, or verbal, communication no doubt is the key to human evolution. Visual cues are easier to grasp and so is the written message, but how about the verbal language where most of us humans get lost because certain factors can affect the verbal messages. Visual communication is the easiest of the three because we as humans are naturally drawn to images and colors, in this modern era where we are always bombarded with advertisement almost every day it is easier for us to understand the visual language. Written communication, on the other hand, is much harder to grasp than the visual language and graphics because words are bland and rigid almost it has no life on its own, it only lends support to the visual elements of a website or a magazine. Finally, verbal communication is the hardest because it has so many requirements before someone can understand what is being said effectively.

What is the difference between hearing and listening?

Hearing, as we know it, is one of the five basic senses, others being the sense of sight, smell, taste, and touch. It is one of the basic functions, it is accidental and involuntary. It is how we perceive sounds such as noise or silence. Because sound is only secondary to light when it comes to the travel speed as a form of energy, it tends to be much slower than light, that’s why the lightning comes first before the thunder. 

Hearing is the automatic response of the brain to sounds and it is involuntary. Our ears receive varying degrees of sounds at the moment and our brain filters each sound and associate them with any information our brain can grasp such as a loud boom or a whisper. Because it is involuntary, we cannot unhear any incoming sounds to our ears, we can only partially block any loud noises with tools such as earmuffs or earplugs. Just like the sense of sight, hearing is very essential because our ears are also the organ that facilitates our sense of balance or the coordination of our senses with our body. 

Hearing is the pure response to the sound; it is primordial and fundamental. We can live with just hearing and not react to the sounds we hear. Growing up as a human, we tend to develop certain techniques to ignore or reject certain sounds that mean nothing to us such as a clock ticking or a bell ringing. These are mundane sounds and we are not particularly interested in responding to a sound that is too obviously not important. We become selective when it comes to what sound we will accommodate or attend to.

Listening, on the other hand, has a function and voluntary. We can analyze the sounds and respond to them accordingly. The purpose of listening is to filter unwanted sounds to acquire information so that our brain can create an appropriate response to such information, for example, we heard a loud booming sound from a distance, the sound travels our ear and our auditory nerves acquire information regarding the sound and send messages to the brain. Our brain can now associate the sound with stored information such as the danger of bombs, our brain can now conclude that the sound comes from impending danger, then it delegates a bodily function as a response to the thought such as our muscle and heart. Now, our body unanimously coordinates to instantly run away from the sound not towards the source of the sound where the danger might be. 

Listening also aids in our relationship’s functions and daily tasks. Our daily lives depend on these minutiae of bodily functions, other than eating and sleeping. Listening is the intentional process of evaluating information interpreted by the brain caused by the sounds that enter our ears. We tend to identify certain sounds according to intensity or resources, which one comes from an animal or human, which one is intense or mild. This mental association is the most crucial part of the listening process because it will affect our response to the sound. 

This process requires effort and understanding as it cannot be called listening without those requirements. It is giving attention to the messages that enter our ears and scrutinizing every minutia of details such as language, tone, or purpose. This full attention requires the whole brain functions to arrive at such an interpretation. Since every type of communication has a beginning and an ending, the importance comes from the beginning stage where the receiving and evaluating lies. 

Now that we understand the difference between the hearing and listening functions, we can now have a better understanding of the purpose of each one in our daily lives as a functional human being. Hearing is just the natural reception of sounds that we may accommodate or ignore while listening is the purposeful and intentional response to the sounds and messages that our ears hear, that we can now express through speech or language. 

Understanding the differences between the two can also have beneficial effects on our daily communication and provide a certain basis to any relationship, be it platonic, filial, or romantic. We can now have a better understanding of our bodily functions and how we utilize them to our advantage. Hearing is the most fundamental function of ineffective communication, it is the start but if we apply effort and understanding then we can now be confident to call it listening.

The Anatomy of Hearing and Listening

Hearing is a natural physiological process while listening is a psychological process. When the sound enters our ears it is hearing, interpreting, and evaluating these sounds is called listening. We are going to break down this process and identify the key features of our ears and brain for these functions. 

Our hearing process starts with the creation of sounds from a source and their travel through the air and into our ears. When a certain object moves or hits another object with a different surface or chemical structure, it creates a sound. The sound waves then are being carried by air as a medium of sound towards the ear and then received by the outer ear.

As we know it, the human ear is different from the animal ear, the human ear is composed of 3 parts: outer, middle, and inner. All of these parts are so naturally coordinated to create a seamless process to transmute sound information from outside to the brain. These parts are also very important because if there is a problem with each one the auditory function will not work and the process cannot be possible to happen. 

The outer ear is composed of the visible parts of the ears. The auricle which is a funnel-like structure collects sound and amplifies it towards the ear canal. This structure also receives both low and high-frequency sounds, it is then filtering the sound and modulates them as they enter the ear canal. Sound localization also occurs in this process and reflects excess sounds. It serves as a gate to enter the auditory system. The auricle also transforms incoming sounds and modify them as they go through inside. The ear canal serves as a pathway from the auricle to the middle ear. It is a tube-like structure that connects the visible parts of the ear to the tympanic membrane. It is also surrounded by wax that aids cleaning and lubrication of the ear to protect it from specks of dust and foreign objects. The ear canal directs sound waves to the tympanic membrane or eardrum, these waves are modified by the structure to protect the eardrums from damage. The cerumen or earwax secreted by the glands and also the small tiny hairs provides an added protection to the ear. 

The middle ear is composed of the tympanic membrane and the tympanic cavity. The tympanic membrane also known as the eardrum serves as a conduit between the outer structures of the and the middle portions. It is composed of a thin layer of tissue that is surrounded by firmer structures. It also vibrates back and forth when the sound waves from the ear canal strike it. The eardrum is very sensitive and ruptured ones can cause detrimental hearing problems so taking care is a must. The eardrum then finally converts the vibrations from the air to vibrations from fluid in the cochlea. 

The ossicles are composed of three tiny bones: incus, malleus, and stapes. The purpose of these structures is to convert the vibration from the eardrum to the fluid of cochlea in a mechanical function. The Eustachian tubes connect the ear with the end of the nose, it is where our sense of balance is regulated. This is also the part of the ear that functions for balance and coordination rather than hearing. It also regulates the pressure of the middle ear from the pressure outside of the ear, it is needed for the appropriate transference of sound waves. 

The inner ear is composed of organs that are needed for sensory functions for hearing and balance. The cochlea, an organ that looks like a snail, serves as the hearing portion of the inner ear. It is filled with fluid that moves in response to the movement of the middle ear. The movement then is coordinated by hair cells that transmit electrical signals to the nerve cells via neurotransmitters to the brain for processing.

The auditory cortex in the temporal lobe inside the brain processes these neural signals and interprets them. The temporal lobe functions in auditory perception and houses the primary auditory cortex. The primary auditory cortex receives a sensory signal from the cochlea and interprets them into information such as words and associations.

The Difference Between Active and Passive Listening

Now that we know the faculties of hearing, let’s discuss the two types of listening: active and passive. We can separate these two by the different determining factors that affect each. How learning to differentiate the two can give us an understanding of better human communication.

Passive listening is a lot like hearing, the message is transmitted to the brain but the receiver chooses to ignore the message. As humans growing up, we are trained to manipulate certain information that we receive and utilize them to our advantage. Yet, not all the things that are useful to us and we normally do not pay attention to this useless information. 

As we grow older, we acquire certain belief systems and experiences that affect our judgment of this auditory information. We tend to filter psychologically any information we receive with these judgment screens, these are layers of filters that regulate what we keep to believe based on our experiences, biases, ideologies, and perspectives. So, when someone is speaking, we automatically regulate what we hear via these filters and accept what appeals to us or agrees to our values and beliefs. The thing about these filters is that it is so automatic that we tend also to block useful information that we might need. This also applies to listening to conversations that require emotional understanding.

Unlike passive listening, active listening is very purposeful and attentive. Active listeners tend to be receptive, empathic, and adaptable to new information that they might need to hear and respond to. The receiver is open themselves up to possibilities and try to understand what the speaker is trying to impart. They are very assertive and perceptive, they make an effort to internalize what is being said and creates more effective communication.

Active listening also has more benefits in all areas of life including relationships, career, and personal health. The receiver demonstrates an understanding and is trying to empathize with the speaker’s perspective. They also have a more understanding of human experiences, unlike passive listeners who tend to be rigid with their beliefs and ideas. They are more adept at communication and also have better relationships and career life. They also have a solid trust and support system that they may have built over time because they can handle personal interactions well. They are also tended to have optimal health and sound psychological functions and are less likely to have somatic problems. 

Listening and Relationships

Listening also is a crucial factor in developing effective relationships. Relationships that are romantic, platonic, or filial has effective communication as it’s the basic foundation. Maintaining relationships means being fully attentive all of the time and doing the hard work of keeping such relationship at it’s optimum. 

Because we’re living in a world where life is difficult and problems rob us of our sanity from left to right, we tend to shut down some people in our lives even the ones closest to us. These sometimes problems rooted in our inability to handle conflicts and miscommunications that sometimes lead to detrimental consequences to the parties involved. It is indeed a problem if existing relationships became antagonistic and acrimonious because of mishandling conflicts and passive listening. 

Conflicts arise in not fulfillment of personal and relationship goals or if such goals contrasted with someone else. We are sometimes adamant about pursuing our personal goals even if it’s against other goals. These goals are rooted in some kind of belief systems we have developed over the time growing up. From political biases to religious beliefs, these factors affect our lenses on how we tend to see the world and keep relationships. Personal preferences also are a crucial factor in these personal goals and handling relationships. 

As we have discussed, passive listening is different from active listening. Passive listening is a surefire catalyst to create conflicts and misunderstandings in existing relations. It is one-sided and not effective; the receiver of the message does not benefit from the information of what the sender is trying to say thus sometimes creating disruptions or confusion. 

Passive and active listening also play in different types of communication; be it a one-to-one conversation where two people sending back and forth information or a large conference where one individual is speaking and the participators are expected to listen. Passive listening is just hearing the message but not doing the effort to trying to accept the information and benefit from it. 

Even in marital relationships, the crucial role of active listening is important because maintaining such a complex relationship is a huge responsibility because it can also affect other areas of life such as financial and personal health aspects of a marriage. From communicating complaints or just simply discussing and addressing an issue, it is very essential to apply active listening because it can resolve problems by fleshing out what is not important and see a different light to the situation. In such living situations where sometimes strong personalities clash against each other, a controlling and critical wife and a withdrawn and suppressed husband where they may be passive-aggressive to each other. What is needed is effective communication where the individual parties must set aside their differences and discuss commonality and learn to listen and accept these different perspectives. 

These applications of active and passive listening are very crucial to friendships and colleagues too but not as complicated as marital or familial relationships. Ultimately, we learn to apply listening to our day-to-day life.

Listening as an Important Life Skill

We have discussed the importance of active listening in our relationships and the disadvantages of passive listening but how are going to do it. Listening is also an important life skill to master as it is required in almost any job or career.

In a normal corporate setting where an employee is dealing with clients and coordinating with co-workers, it is important to possess a good listening habit because not only it can easily get the job done but also helps to maintain a harmonious relationship with the clients for continuous collaborations and also create a smooth-sailing interaction in the office. Active listening helps us to keep track of the information that is being relayed to us, not to miss anything, and minimize unnecessary repetition of instructions thus creating further conflicts.  

In job interviews, recruiters tend to shortlist applications who do not only have the technical skills required for the job but also the one with an adept skill in active listening. Of course, how can they hire someone defensive whom they know cannot work effectively in the future. Thus, it is one of the pre-requisites of maintaining a good track record in a career because otherwise finding a job would be difficult.

Of course, we always thought that active listening would be as easy as hearing but it is harder than we thought. It requires focus and attention to the message being said, the key is to find the main thought or heart of the message. Every detail is important in analyzing a message that’s why attentiveness is essential. Another key requirement is openness and acceptance because different messages carry different agendas or intentions and these messages also have words that trigger responses to ingrained personal biases and learned beliefs, being open to these is also a crucial factor. Finally, the last key for effective active listening is empathy. The information being carried in messages also carry emotional elements to them, be it a message that proclaims thus is joyful, warns thus create seriousness or messages of bereavement thus inspires grief. Whatever the message is, it contains emotional elements that inspires also an emotional response to match it. If you’re the type of person who is always unapologetically happy-go-lucky and rarely takes life seriously then being in a funeral service would be difficult for you. Empathy is important in listening, accepting the message would be easier if we can tap on the emotional point of the messages first.


To wrap it up, we have learned that passive listening is just a lot like plain hearing but active listening creates a more dynamic and rewarding communication not only benefits our relationships but also our day-to-day lives in this complex modern world. Learning new techniques of effective communication ensures better life and makes interactions meaningful and beneficial.

What Is Passive Listening?

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