Active vs. Passive Listening

There’s a saying that goes “We have two ears and one mouth – so that we can listen more than we speak”.

And there definitely is a difference between listening and hearing.

Has there been a time when you have been speaking to someone and they’ve answered you completely out of context to what you said or just gave you a one worded answer?

This is passive listening.

In other words the other person is not fully present in the moment giving you their undivided attention. They may be distracted, thinking of something else, are not interested in the topic on hand, or may just plainly not have much time for you.

Considering that 7% of our communication is verbal, 55% is visual (i.e. body language) and 38% is voice (tone, inflection, etc) there are a lot of cues to be looking out for when interacting with someone.

Active listening is being fully present in the moment.

It means being aware of where you are at in your own head (your emotional state), how you are contributing to the conversation (body language etc), and your impact on the other person (is it positive or negative) and how the other is impacting on you (your reaction).

When we are fully present in a conversation, not only are we giving that person our undivided attention, we are also showing them respect and that we value them as a person and what they are sharing with us.

They say that 90% of problems in relationships (personal or peer) is due to the lack of communication – either what is not being said (fear of not feeling safe to share, retaliation etc) or what is not being heard (lack of understanding, not being able to see things from the other person’s perspective).

Most of the time we listen to respond instead of really hear what the other person has to say. We are so busy preparing our response that we miss vital pieces of information that are coming our way.

This primarily has to do with how the brain is wired, to look for the negative. Our brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative – this stems back to our early days where it was all about survival (and still is today).

One way to ensure you are fully present and tuned in to what the other person is saying is to use mirroring.

Mirroring is a psychological phenomenon in which people mimic speech patterns, gestures and nonverbal behaviours of others. Research has shown that people who use mirroring effectively tend to build a good rapport with the other person and can be seen in a positive light.

The more the relational space (i.e. the space between two people) is safe and open, the better the relating that will take place – in other words, the better the quality of the conversation, communication and the relationship as a whole.

Paula Quinsee is a Relationship Wellness Expert in Johannesburg. She teaches individuals and organisations the importance of quality relationships using emotional intelligence, Imago Therapy and NLP principles. Paula is also the author of Embracing Conflict – a self-help guide filled with practical tools and insights. Attend one of her regular monthly workshops for great empowering tools. Go to for more informati