Hearing vs. Listening: What's the difference?

The metaphor of a spotlight and what it can teach us about empathic listening

There are three qualities that differentiate hearing from listening:

  1. Presence means that I am in the ‘here and now’—my attention is on what the other person is sharing in the moment.

  2. My focus is on the other person and the experience they’re sharing. I find the image of the spotlight to help me remember where I want my focus to be. When I truly listen, the spotlight is on the speaker; anytime I try to share my own experience, advice or suggestions, I’m moving the spotlight on to myself. I want to remember to keep the spotlight on them.

  3. I aim for deep understanding, not data understanding. Sometimes we may think that knowing the details of another person’s story is important to being able to support the other person. I’ve found that this is not always necessary. When we’re listening rather than listen for data understanding (what happened? Where? Who said that? What next?), I can aim for deep understanding focusing on:

    1. How are they feeling about what happened, and what needs of theirs are alive in the moment?

    2. What is the deeper meaning underlying what they’ve shared with me? What matters to them in this context.

The next time you’re listening to someone, check with yourself:

  1. Is my attention on them?

  2. Am I focusing on them or on my own reactions to the story?

What am I listening for?

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The difference between sympathy and empathy

Some more resources on the topic

On a lighter note…

A Calvin & Hobbes strip that explains how not to listen:

PS. If you live in India and would like an opportunity to learn NVC in a community space, join us for the NVC Convention in early April. I’m on the trainer team for the event and would love to see you there!