Listening And Hearing Are Not The Same

Listening and hearing are not the same thing and they both require a different response. When we are being listened to, it is dignifying and validating and often moves us towards self discovery. When we are being heard, the other person is often gaining insight into our state of mind that we do not yet have.

My brother is very good listener. He has always been good at helping me talk through challenges and arrive at a solution. He rarely tells me what to do, will only occasionally offer his opinion about the specific subject and is more inclined to relate a story about something similar that happened to him than to talk about the specifics of what I said. He knows that very often I think by talking so whatever I say at the beginning is not necessarily going to be what I would say at the end. In fact, how I think at the beginning usually bares no resemblance to what I think at the end. Conversations with him are easy, interesting and usually leave me feeling elated and energized.

My wife Heather is not a very good listener. She is distracted very easily and can be rather impulsive during conversations. She’s amazing to talk to provided I’m willing to go on a ride or if I have a very clear idea of what I’m attempting to communicate. If I know what I want to say, I need to get to it quickly because she doesn’t have the same capacity for listening that my brother does. In fact, if it take longer than 3 or 4 sentences to get out, it’s probably pointless to start it because the whole thing won’t be making it out of my mouth. I usually feel energized after talking to Heather but there will be times when I feel completely frustrated or overwhelmed.

Heather’s limited ability to listen does not have a negative impact on her insightfulness. In fact, she identifies what is occurring very quickly and this is why she stops listening. She’s very busy and has a large list of things that she wants to get to. Every moment spent on something is a moment that isn’t spend on something else. For this reason, she has learned to hear very quickly and basically checks out the moment she has heard what I am saying. This is different from conversations with Des. He doesn’t hear as well or as quickly, I think this stems from the fact that we are very different people and do not run a lot of the same mental code. He can listen very well but cannot hear because he doesn’t have the code that makes hearing me possible. He is capable of both listen and hearing his wife and they communicate very effectively.

Listening and hearing are not the same thing. Both are important, neither one is better than the other. Listening is more superficial. It is a critical component to remaining engaged and connected to someone. The words do not have a big impact on the listeners brain. It is as though there is a filtering process working to allow the essence of what is being said to have an effect on the brain of the listener. Insight and understanding are not required outcomes for a good listening. A good listener may never gain an appreciate of what the other persons experience of reality is like but their actions will help the other person get a better understanding of their experience of reality. By being listened to, the speaker gets the answer to the question “why am I saying what I am saying?”

Hearing is different. Hearing cuts through all of the noise and gets to the root of what what is being said. The words are only a small part of what the communication. Tone, context, idea flow, and word choice are also parts of it. The hearer notices these things as well and factors them into their understanding of what is going on. Hearing answers the question “why is this person saying what they are saying?”

For me, the outcome is very similar. Des allows me to get to it on my own and aims to say as little as possible. Heather gets clarity on what I am saying and, more importantly, why I am saying it much faster and lets me say as little as possible. Talking to Des is for me less frustrating because I don’t get cut off mid-sentence. But it also consumes a lot more of his time because the conversation will last as long as it has to. With Heather, I can get cut off quickly and have the thing explained back to me after a minute. This is more frustrating because if there is an emotional charge that is being burned off by talking the thing out, this process is stopped dead in its tracks. If I’m able to deal with that and when I’m able to let go of the frustration, the insights she offers up can be just as exciting as the insights Des’ listening allow me to reveal.

The biggest challenge with being heard while not being listened to is an internal challenge and it is one about ego. If I’m willing to let her solve my problem or at least reframe my mindset, everything is great. The breakdown occurs when I’m not open enough to hear the reality of what is going on. This can be a tough one to manage, particularly with a significant other. No one wants to feel vulnerable, like someone can read our mind because we know on some level that if someone is able to read our mind we can be taken advantage of or gamed. Being gamed represents an historic shortcoming because those who can predict our next action will be have a survival advantage over us because they can take our limited resources. It is an antiquated fear, but one that has a very long history in our evolutionary past.

It can also be tough to parse out the message from the messenger. When the message is bad and evokes negative emotion, transferring this onto the messenger can be automatic. Maintaining clarity when negative emotions are triggered requires mental effort and skill. When we draw the conclusion on our own, this triggering of negative emotion is suppressed / reduced. Plus, whatever unconscious processes got us to identify the conclusion are also working to influence the emotional response to the conclusion. Having Heather simply state what is going on and why it is happening can be jarring and it requires some time to appropriately process. I will get there, I will just go somewhere else first.

Listening and hearing are not the same thing and they both require a different response. When we are being listened to, it is dignifying and validating and often moves us towards self discovery. When we are being heard, the other person is often gaining insight into our state of mind that we do not yet have. If the hearer continues to let us speak and get to the moments of self discovery, they’ll be able to check-in and validate the conclusion against what they heard; this is the same thing as listening. However, if they preempt this moment of self discovery and state their finding, the outcome becomes potentially problematic and will require extra effort on the part of the speaker to initiate the needed mental processes to assimilate what has been revealed. Often times, at least with me, this can be tough, but it is worth it to take some time and work to respond as opposed to react.

It’s fair to say that when you are talking to someone who hears very quickly, you better be prepared to hear as well. Anything other than hearing isn’t going to be enough to effectively handle the conversation.