You might hear what someone is saying to you, but are you actually listening? There’s a big difference between active listening and passive listening. Whether you are an active listener or a passive listener can affect your relationships and job prospects and may also be indicative of certain personality traits. This makes active listening an important skill to master to make a good impression at college or job interviews.

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Active listening is paying full attention to the speaker and making an effort to understand the message. Passive listening is not paying much attention and making no effort to understand the message.

What Is Active Listening?

In active listening, the listener pays full attention to the speaker and his words and makes an effort to understand the message. Active listening builds rapport, understanding and trust by actually hearing the message behind what the other person is saying, not just what you think they are saying or what you want to hear. The active listener spends more time listening than talking. However, he both listens and responds to the speaker, either through body language or words of his own.

The active listener is genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the other person’s point of view and engages in intellectual exchange. Empathy is an important component of active listening because having empathy for the other person validates his words and recognizes his feelings.

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Typically, an active listener is strong willed, self-motivated and open to new ideas.

What Is Passive Listening?

In passive listening, the listener may appear to be listening to the speaker and her words but makes no effort to understand the message. Unlike the active listener, the passive listener is not paying attention. Whenever you listen to music while you are doing something else, such as studying or doing chores, you are passive listening. You may be aware of the music, but your attention is on your task.

A passive listener in a conversation or learning environment may accept and retain the information she hears but does not question or challenge the message or show interest through words or body language. She avoids getting into debates and giving opinions and is unreceptive to new ideas.

Sometimes, the passive listener talks more than she listens. While this may suggest that she is an active participant in a conversation, she is actually not paying attention to what the other person is saying.

Benefits of Active Listening

One example of the importance of listening is at a job interview. An active listener will make a much better impression than a passive listener. This is because active listening is two-way communication between parties. The active listener interacts with the interviewer by commenting and asking questions and reacting appropriately to what he says.

On the other hand, the passive listener does not react at all and may appear to be bored, disconnected or ignorant. An employer seeking someone who is engaged, self-motivated and open minded is more likely to hire an active listener than a passive one.

In your personal life, active listening is important because the better your communication skills, the more likely you are to have good relationships with others.

How to Improve Active Listening

To improve your listening skills, you must pay attention to the other person. If you're in a meeting, turn your chair toward her, sit up straight and relax your shoulders. If you're talking on the phone, turn away from your computer and other distractions.

Try repeating what the other person says mentally to reinforce her message and maintain focus. Acknowledge the message with verbal and nonverbal cues, such as nodding, asking occasional questions and making comments when she pauses.

Develop empathy by asking yourself, "How would I feel if I were that person?" This makes her feel heard and helps you figure out the best response to her message.

About the Author

Claire Gillespie has been writing and editing for 18 years. She has written about high school and higher education for private clients and various websites, including SheKnows and Reader's Digest.