Are we listening or just hearing?

Amy McNeel

Hearing is one of the five senses. It is natural, and, for much of the population, it is effortless. As humans, we are constantly hearing, whether we are paying attention or not giving a care in the world. 

In fact, as I sit in this very chair and stare at the computer screen directly in front of me, I hear the click of the keys that I press. I hear the intense spinning of the fan behind me. I hear gusts of wind and the clatter of plastic blinds as that very wind filters its way through the screen of my cracked window. 

In life, as students and as people, we are constantly hearing. We communicate with others, we listen to lectures and a lot of us have music playing when we do homework. But I have a question for you: How often do you really, truly listen? 

A lot of people consider hearing and listening to be synonymous. However, this is most definitely not the case. Here is the differentiating factor: You can hear without listening, but you cannot listen without hearing. 

According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, hearing is “the process, function or power of perceiving sound,” while listening is the ability “to pay attention to sound.” With these definitions we see that a key difference between hearing and listening is attention. 

This is what I mean by the previously written line, “You can hear without listening, but you cannot listen without hearing.” When you hear, you do not have to pay attention. Hearing, once again, is effortless. But when you listen, you have to actually pay attention to what you are hearing. 

According to Seth S. Horowitz, neuroscientist and former professor at Brown University, in “The Science and Art of Listening” for The New York Times, hearing acts as our “alarm system,” and that alarm system is constantly working. 

Due to this, the auditory system creates a kind of “volume control” that tunes out most sounds. This is why, Horowitz says, attention is key. When we actually pay attention to sounds around us, we depart from the tuned-out noises and truly listen to what we are hearing. 

Knowing the difference between these two concepts is important because as a society, we do too much plain hearing and not enough true listening. Listening is a skill that needs to be learned. 

However, in an age of, as Horowitz states, “digital distraction and information overload,” it is a skill that is becoming harder to obtain, let alone master. This is problematic because listening is a fundamental part of comprehending information. If we lack listening skills, we will not get as good grades, and we will not build as strong relationships. 

I think we all probably fall short in the listening department from time to time. I know I do. The good news is that listening is a skill and can therefore be learned. 

When you’re in a lecture, remind yourself to stay engaged. Listening will help your grade. When you’re talking to a friend, family member or partner, remind yourself to pay attention. Listening will reduce those “you never listen to me!” situations. 

It can be easy to be lazy and lose focus, but if we pay attention, we can all become active listeners, not just hearers.