When a person responds to your words by saying “I hear you,” you may sometimes wonder if he is truly listening to you. Perhaps you find your mind wandering off when someone is sharing her thoughts with you. Hearing and listening have quite different meanings. Hearing is a passive occurrence that requires no effort. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious choice that demands your attention and concentration.
Everyone wants to be heard and understood, but at one time or another most people don't listen and fail to understand the meaning of another person's words. It’s a fundamental human need to have your feelings acknowledged, whether or not someone agrees with you. Honest to goodness listening creates an intimate connection and makes you feel cared about.
You can hear someone speak without listening to the words. Hearing defines only the physical measurement of the sound waves that are transmitted to the ear and into the brain where they are processed into audible information. Hearing occurs with or without your consent. The National Youth Council says hearing is such a passive quality, it occurs even while you sleep. When you merely hear someone’s words but are not listening to what's being said, it can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities and resentments.
Listening goes far beyond your natural hearing process. It means paying attention to the words that are being spoken with the intention of understanding the other person. Your personal perceptions and prejudices can affect the quality of your listening skills. For example, if you feel your are better off (financially, intellectually, socially) than the person you are listening to, you may dismiss much of what she is saying because of your perceived superiority.
There are four basic levels of hearing and listening, according to Toast Masters. You can easily fall into one of these categories in different conversations. A non-listener is totally preoccupied with his personal thoughts and though he hears words, he doesn’t listen to what is being said. Passive listeners hear the words but don’t fully absorb or understand them. Listeners pay attention to the speaker, but grasp only some of the intended message. Active listeners are completely focused on the speaker and understand the meaning of the words without distortion.
A good listener understands that communication is a two-way street. He refrains from interrupting a speaker with his own thoughts. Good listening also requires keeping an open mind, refraining from judgment and making direct eye contact. Finally, a good listener will not glance up at the clock or look down at his watch while the other person is speaking.