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Active listening

If you’re talking to someone then it’s pretty usual for your mind to drift to other thoughts. You might be juggling loads of tasks, feeling a bit overwhelmed and finding it hard to focus or just really tired and dreaming of your bed.

When your mind begins to wander, you're probably still hearing the other person, but you're not really listening to what they have to say. Over time, this lack of attention can negatively impact your conversations and relationships with people, especially if people feel that you're rarely listening to them and not as present as they’d like.

Hearing vs. Listening

Let’s start with the basics. Hearing and listening are different. There are several really important differences between the two. Hearing is primarily a passive activity. Listening to sounds and noises but not necessarily fully concentrating on those sounds

The main characteristics of both are:

  • Passive

  • Involuntary

  • Requires no effort

  • Physiological perception of sound

  • Active

  • Voluntary

  • Requires effort

  • Intentional interpretation of sound


Hearing is a passive, involuntary process which doesn’t necessarily required focussed attention. For Example, we can hear music in the background but we might not always be able to tell anyone what specific music is playing, unless we focus on that sound.


Listening is an active, voluntary, and intentional process that requires a more focussed effort. It requires attention and what you hear, may evoke a response from you as you fully understand what or who you are listening to. Listening with the intent to understand is referred to as active listening and is the cornerstone of any therapeutic relationship

For example, if you’re listening to someone talk about a relationship issue then hopefully you are fully focussed on them whilst they are talking. This will then help you empathise with them fully and really understand their experience. It should also enable you to perhaps ask them further questions or talk things through with them.

The Importance of Hearing in Mental Health

Hearing is an important sense that helps us navigate the world. The loss of hearing can have a profound effect on mental health for some of us. It can lead to anger, social withdrawal, changes in our sense of self-worth, and possibly depression.

Importance of Listening in Mental Health

We are social beings and we all have a need for connection and belonging with others. Listening is what enables us to develop increased curiosity about other people’s life experiences. It can also help us develop increased compassion and empathy towards others.

If people are not listening to others or feel that they are not being listened to, it can negatively affect their sense of connection can could lead to that person feeling disconnected from others, which can lead to people feeling disenfranchised. If you try and think of a time when you were not being listened to, the experience may have caused you to feel devalued, uncared for, lonely and possibly powerless. All of these feelings can contribute to feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression.

Listening and engaging with others can strengthen your relationships. Similarly, a lack of listening can create tension and distance in relationships, make it difficult to resolve any conflicts and contributing to some people feeling unwanted and unheard. We all have a right to be heard at some point and a continually being ignored can affect mental health and well-being.

What Does It Mean to Hear and not Listen?

Quite often, many of us are just listening with intent to respond, rather that actually really listening to someone. Many of us are just waiting for our cue to talk and this can make someone feel undervalued and it can feel like what they have to say isn’t important.

These are some of the reasons why people may be hearing and not listening:

  • You may not have learned the skill of listening—this is perhaps the most common reason.

  • You may be busy, distracted, or daydreaming.

  • You may have social anxiety which can make it harder to listen because you are focused on planning what to say next or worried about what others are thinking about you.

  • You may not be interested in what another person has to say and you’re allowed to feel this. However, it might be time to think about the impact this is having on others and choose carefully who you want to engage with

Tips to Become a Better Listener

We can all become better listeners with some really simple listening skills:

  • Set an intention to improve: Setting a clear plan to work on your listening skills and practice your listening skills and ask for feedback

  • Practice mindfulness: This can help you be more present. You can practice it simply by noticing what has your attention in the moment; is it the person speaking to you or something else? If your attention is on something else, you can gently redirect your focus back to the person and become conscious of this.

  • Be curious: Adopting a curious mindset allows you to truly listen and understand what a person is saying.

  • Let go of judgments and assumptions: When you judge and assume things, you essentially close the door to new information which means you are less likely to pay attention and listen. Letting go of judgments and assumptions will also help you become more curious.

  • Summarize and reflect on what you are hearing: Repeating in your own words what you heard the other person say can demonstrate that you are listening to that person and gives that person a chance to confirm that you have understood them.

  • Ask questions: Asking relevant, open-ended questions shows you are listening, and it provokes more engagement in the conversation.

  • Use nonverbal gestures: Using nonverbal cues, such as making eye contact and occasionally nodding your head, can communicate that you are listening and paying attention.

  • Try to validate: Try to acknowledge how someone’s thoughts and feelings are understandable and show them that you really understand their thoughts.

  • Give advice only if required: You may find that others generally, don’t want advice, they just want someone to listen and then figure it out for themselves. Don’t try to solve the problem or give advice unless that is what the person is asking for. When we give advice it can be perceived as taking over and none of us really like being told what to do by anyone. We like to come to our own conclusions. they just want to be understood and listened to.

  • Put away distractions: This can be difficult since we are constantly surrounded by distractions. However, little gestures such as putting your phone face down so you can’t see messages or notifications come through or turning away from your computer screen can help you be more attentive and present.

  • Practice compassionate listening exercises: You and a partner can each take three to five minutes to share a personal story. There should be a 15- to 30-second pause before the other person starts sharing. After both people have shared their stories, you can take a few minutes to discuss what it was like to listen and be listened to in this way.

Active listening can feel hard to start with, but once you try it and start to see the benefits in your personal relationships, as people begin to see that you are really listening to them, you will hopefully begin to see how beneficial active listening can be for us all. It can make such a huge difference to our interpersonal relationships and ultimately all most of us want is to be heard at some point in our lives. We all have a right to be heard and that right should be respected x

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