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Passive Listening: Meaning, Examples, and Tips

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By adding passive listening to your skill set, you can improve your ability to communicate and learn in many settings

When most career-minded people think about listening skills, they tend to focus on those all-important active listening abilities. After all, active listening is considered a critical skill for fostering understanding, building relationships, and resolving conflicts in the workplace. However, there’s also a time and place for passive listening at work and elsewhere in life.

In this post, we’ll explore the concept of passive listening and look at some examples of ways people can use this listening style. We’ll also provide some tips to help you learn how to improve your own passive listening skills, so that you’re doing more than just hearing what others are saying.

What is passive listening? 

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who just sat there and listened without interrupting, asking questions, or otherwise engaging in dialogue? If so, then you’re probably somewhat familiar with a listening style known as passive listening. Moreover, you’ve likely employed some level of passive listening at different times in your career.  

Passive listening is characterized by the way in which the listener engages in the conversation. A passive listener typically doesn’t respond to the speaker. Instead, they passively listen to each word that’s said, without interruption. Obviously, this is very different from the active listening approach. To better understand those differences, let’s look at some simple comparisons between active and passive listening:

  • While active listeners ask questions to try to improve their understanding, passive listeners rarely interrupt or ask questions

  • Active listening can include the use of reflective and empathetic responses. In passive listening, any responses tend to be more generic

  • Active listening requires full engagement in the dialogue, while passive listening tends to be less engaged

Which is better: active or passive listening?

Of course, that simple comparison of these two listening styles raises an obvious question: which is the best way to listen? Most professionals and experts tend to agree that active listening is the most effective way to improve comprehension, promote productive feedback, and build relationships at every level of your career. At the same time, however, there are times when passive listening is an essential skill to have. After all, there are situations where your engagement should be limited to just listening to what’s being said.

That’s why you shouldn’t think of passive listening as the direct opposite of active listening. Done properly, passive listening can be an effective and necessary way to gather information from another speaker. As a result, it’s important to develop your passive listening skills for those times when active listening may not be entirely appropriate.

Examples of passive listening

It may help to consider some examples of passive listening situations, to better understand why there may be times when active listening will not be your best option. For example:

During presentations where you’re part of the audience

There are many times in life when active listening just isn’t appropriate. At work, this can include instances where someone else is making a presentation or delivering a company message. If you’re a member of that audience, it would be impolite to interrupt and ask questions, since presentations are designed to be one way. Your job in that situation is to listen intently to what’s being said. If the presenter asks for questions or comments, you can then switch to active or reflective listening mode.

During conversations where the other person needs to speak

Throughout your professional and personal life, you’re going to encounter situations where another person just wants to vent or share an experience. Or maybe someone wants to tell you their side of the story. You’ll usually get the best results in those situations by being a passive listener who allows other people to say what they need to say without interruption, questions, or judgment.

During any situation where your role is to absorb information rather than participate

If you’re like most people, your earliest encounters with passive listening took place in a classroom setting. The teacher provided lectures, offering different types of information for your educational benefit. Your job as a student was to listen to the information and perhaps take notes as the lecture unfolded. Depending on your chosen profession, you’ll likely continue to use at least some level of passive listening throughout your career.

According to one study from Ohio University, the average person spends roughly 70% of waking hours engaged in some type of communication with other people. Only a fraction of that time is spent actively listening to others. In fact, most of your listening is likely to be some form of passive listening, so it’s important to know how to make the most of those times when your only job is to hear what others say.

Tips to help you become a more effective passive listener

While you’ll want to use active listening whenever you can, you should also make sure that you develop your passive listening skills to their fullest. The reality is that passive listening can provide many benefits when used the right way and in the right situations. The following tips are designed to help you to improve your passive listening skills, to ensure that you maximize those benefits in your own life and career.

Evaluate the situation

The first thing you need to do is to take stock of the situation, to determine whether you need to listen actively or passively. Is your response or interaction required, or does the other person just want to share information with you? Your ability to know when to just listen without speaking will go a long way toward building better relationships with others.

Focus your attention on the speaker

Eliminate distractions and give all your attention to the speaker. Yes, that means ignoring your phone, too. By keeping your attention on the speaker, you can more effectively consider the information that you’re hearing and avoid having your mind wander to other topics.

Maintain an open body position

Position yourself in a way that shows you’re paying attention. Face the speaker, keep your arms open and lean in slightly towards them while maintaining good eye contact. Using the right body language can help to demonstrate that you’re fully engaged in the interaction.

Be silent, but attentive

Usually, passive listening does not require a response. As a result, you should avoid interruptions and simply focus on the speaker’s words and body language. Remember, your job is to try to understand the meaning of the communication, not to worry about how you’ll respond.

Add passive listening to your skill set and improve your communications with others

Passive listening is sometimes thought of as an inferior type of listening, since it involves a one-sided approach to communication. However, it’s a vital skill to develop if you want to ensure that you can effectively communicate with others in all types of situations. By practicing your passive listening skills and learning when to use them, you can ensure that you’re always ready and able to absorb critical information – no matter how it’s conveyed.

Is your resume compelling enough to capture a prospective employer’s interest? Get a free resume review from our team of trusted experts today, to take your job search and career advancement to the next level.

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