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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

“You can Listen as well as you Hear”

The great 1988 power-ballad “In The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics portrays a son lamenting how he and his father were for ever “talking past each other”. The song has wonderfully poignant lyrics including the repeated phrase: “….you can listen as well as you hear”.

I didn’t really appreciate the deeper meaning of those words until I became a mediator.

In simple terms Hearing is the act of perceiving sound through your ears. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing automatically happens without any thought. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from the noises, sounds, words, tone of voice or sentences that you hear. We are always hearing, often subconsciously, even when we sleep. Listening is done out of choice.

Roland Barthes an expert on signs and symbolism characterised the distinction thus: "Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act."


In humans and other vertebrates, hearing is performed primarily by the auditory system. Tiny vibrations are detected by the ear and transduced into nerve impulses that are perceived by the temporal lobe of the brain.

Sound reaches the ear and the eardrum vibrates as a whole. This signal then has to be analysed. According to studies by Albert Bregman sounds will either be heard as "integrated" (heard as a whole – much like musical harmony), or "segregated" into individual components (which leads to counterpoint). For example, a bell can be heard as a 'single' sound (integrated). But some people are able to hear the individual components – they are able to segregate the sound. This can be done with chords where it can be heard as a 'colour', or as the individual notes. It is said that the 20th century composer Bela Bartok had such good hearing that he was unable to enjoy the countryside because he could hear individual spiders in the undergrowth.

Everyday sounds, such as the human voice, music , or cars passing in the street, are made up of many frequencies, which contribute to the perceived quality (like timbre) of the sounds. When two or more natural sounds occur at once, all the components of the simultaneously active sounds are received at the same time, or overlapped in time, by the listener’s ears. This presents your auditory systems with a problem: which parts of the sound should be grouped together and treated as parts of the same source or object? Grouping them incorrectly can cause the listener to hear non-existent sounds built from the wrong combinations of the original components.

In many instances the segregated elements can be linked together in time, producing an auditory stream. This ability of auditory streaming can be demonstrated by the so-called cocktail-party effect. Up to a point, with a number of voices speaking at the same time or with background sounds, one is able to follow a particular voice even though other voices and background sounds are present. In the cocktail party example, your ear will segregate one voice from other sounds (which are integrated), and your mind "streams" these segregated sounds into an auditory stream. This is a skill which is highly developed in musicians, especially conductors who are able to listen to one, two, three or more instruments at the same time (segregating them) and following each as an independent line through auditory streaming. It is also the skill that allows singers to sing complicated harmonies in an ensemble.

So, hearing is by itself a very complex activity, and that’s even before you’ve starting to interpret what you’ve heard.


According to Oxford Living Dictionary, to listen is to give attention to sound or action. When listening, one is hearing noises and sounds, and trying to understand what they mean. The act of listening involves complex affective, cognitive, and behavioural processes. Affective processes include the motivation to listen to others; cognitive processes include attending to, understanding, receiving, and interpreting content and relational messages; and behavioural processes include responding to others with verbal and nonverbal feedback.

According to Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, listening can be understood on three levels: alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how it affects the listener.

Alerting, the first level of listening, is the detection of environmental sound cues. Certain places have certain sounds associated with them. For instance, your home has certain sounds that makes it familiar and comfortable to you. Any intrusion - a sound that is not familiar in that environment (e.g. a squeaking door or floorboard, a breaking window, or a kettle whistle) will alert you to potential danger. At some level Alert listening is a pre-requisite to survival.

Deciphering, the second level of listening, describes detecting patterns when interpreting sounds. For instance, when a child is waiting for the sound of his mother's return home. In this scenario the child is waiting to pick up on sound cues (e.g. jingling keys, the turn of the doorknob, etc.) that will mark his mother's approach.

Understanding, the third level of listening, means knowing how what one says will affect another. This sort of listening is important in psychoanalysis. Barthes states that the psychoanalyst must turn off their judgement while listening to their patient in order to communicate with their patient's unconscious in an unbiased fashion. This is the same way that listeners should turn off their judgment when listening to others.

All of the three levels of listening function within the same plane, and sometimes all at once. In fact, the second and third levels, which overlap significantly, can be intertwined in that obtaining, understanding and deriving meaning are part of the same process. In that the child, upon hearing the doorknob turn (deciphering), can almost automatically assume that someone is at the door (deriving understanding or meaning).

Another way of categorising listening is how the brain chooses to deal with the incoming sounds: in terms of Information, Pseudo-Listening, and Active Listening.

Informative Listening

The process of informational listening is simply the ability of the listener to understand the speaker's message. It is a huge part of everyday life. Failing to grapple with informational listening can be very detrimental to one's quality of life, and to one’s contribution to society. Much of the listening people engage in on a regular basis falls under the informational listening heading. In the office, people listen to their bosses for instructions. At school, students listen to teachers for information that they are expected to understand for tests and exams. In all areas of life, informational listening plays a huge role in human communication. And at home you will do well to use informational listening when dealing with your kids and partner. How many times was I told as a child "I won't tell you again!"?


Pseudo-listening is the type of listening that people do when they chat on the phone whilst also watching the TV. It’s also the listening they do when they are thinking more about how they are going to respond, than actually listening to what they are hearing. It’s the type of listening that people sometimes do at social events, and particularly where there are other distractions (like loud music or alcohol – or both). It also happens when people are stressed, or bored.

Studies show that as people get older their pseudo-listening skills ‘improve’. An experiment was done on school children to see if they could repeat what the teacher had been saying. 90% of 11-year-olds and 80% of the 12-year-olds could do so; but when the experiment was repeated with teenagers, only 44% of those students and 28% of children of 16-18 could repeat their teachers’ remarks.

Strangely, the degree to which people pseudo-listen to you is affected by all sorts of physical things unrelated to sounds like: how you look, your posture, whether you have a moustache, whether you make eye-contact with them, the tone of your voice, and how loud you are talking (or how quietly). Having spinach in your teeth can also have a big impact. So, make sure you check your molars before giving that important presentation.

Appreciative Listening

Appreciative listening is the type of listening where the listener seeks out certain information which they will appreciate for some emotional reason. You use appreciative listening when listening to your favourite music, or poetry, or maybe even the stirring words of a great preacher. It’s the sort of listening you do if you actively try to pick out birdsong in the street, or sit and concentrate on the sound of the sea.

Active Listening

Active listening is listening to what someone is saying and focusing to understand what is being said, not just by hearing but also recognising the language used and the tone of voice. An active listener analyses what the speaker is saying for hidden meanings. An active listener looks for non-verbal clues from the speaker in order to understand the full meaning of what is being said. With active listening, a person must be willing to hear what someone is saying and to try to understand the real meaning of what is said. When active listening is used, there can be multiple benefits, especially in fast-tracking the transfer of important information. Research has shown that when people engage in active listening they have a better and more accurate memory of what they have heard.

Active listening is an exchange between two or multiple people. When those people are both active listeners, the quality of the conversation will be better and clearer. They connect with each other on a deeper level with each other in their conversations. Active listening can create a deeper, and more positive relationship between the individuals concerned.

How to listen actively

In his book Leader Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon, who coined the phrase active listening said: "Listeners need only restate, in their own language, their impression of the expression of the sender.”

Nevertheless, it is easier said than done. Some good tips on how to actively listen include:

§ Make eye contact

§ Don’t look bored, fidget or fold your arms

§ Avoid interrupting the speaker – they say there’s a reason why ‘listen’ and ‘silent’ have the same letters

§ Don’t pre-judge what is being said

§ Don’t assume you understand the intent behind what is being said

§ Ask clarifying questions if you think you misheard something

§ Restate what you think the speaker has said, to check if you heard right

§ Resist the temptation to be defensive if you hear things that offend you

§ Don’t try to problem solve

A lot of the above does not come naturally. But if you practice you will get better at it, and you will discover that you can listen as well as you hear.

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