We’ve all heard about the importance of listening when someone is speaking, but we’ve also probably encountered a situation in which someone couldn’t hear what we said.
While hearing is necessary, listening to your partner is critically important. Below, learn about the effects of hearing vs. listening in relationships and how to listen better in a relationship and truly understand what your partner is saying to you.
Differences in hearing vs. listening in relationships: Helpful definitions
Hearing means that your brain has physiologically processed the sounds of someone speaking to you.
It is possible to hear that your partner is talking to you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are listening to what they have to say and genuinely understanding what it is they are communicating to you.
There is undoubtedly a difference in hearing and listening, and listening in a relationship is perhaps the most important piece here. When you listen to your partner, you engage in an active process, rather than just passively hearing them.
Listening means genuinely paying attention to what your partner is saying, showing interest in what they’re telling you, and caring about understanding their point of view.
Hearing and listening: How they affect mental health
Now that you know the answer to “What is the difference between hearing and listening?” It is helpful to understand how listening is different from hearing and how both affect mental health.
Importance of hearing for mental health
As one of the five senses, hearing impacts mental health, even if it is a passive process. A recent study found that when women struggled with hearing impairment, their husbands were more depressed.
Another study found that severe hearing loss was associated with increased suicidal thoughts.
Social exclusion and psychological distress were also linked to suicidal ideation, suggesting that hearing loss can make it challenging to maintain relationships and negatively affect mental health.
Hearing is important for mental health because being able to hear what others are saying is a prerequisite for listening.
Hearing impaired people cannot communicate fully, and they miss out on conversations, which ultimately makes it difficult to connect with others. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and can even damage relationships.
Over time, social exclusion and loneliness can worsen mental health and lead to anxiety and depression and decreased happiness.
While hearing vs. listening in relationships represent different constructs, both are important for mental health. Listening is important because a communication breakdown is likely to occur when you don’t actively listen to people.
Before jumping in to advise for how to listen better in a relationship, review the key differences between listening vs. hearing:
Hearing is a passive physiological process, whereas listening requires action and effort.
Hearing can occur without actually understanding what a person is saying, whereas listening requires you to take an interest and understand the meaning of what a person is telling you.
Hearing is automatic, whereas listening requires a person to focus.
Finally, hearing is simply a physical process, whereas listening occurs internally in mind.
How to listen better in a relationship: Tips to consider
Given that listening is important for relationship functioning and overall mental wellbeing, it is helpful to learn to be a better listener. So, consider the tips below to learn how to improve listening skills in a relationship:
1. Give your full attention
Often, we misunderstand what our partner is trying to communicate to us because we are distracted by other things, such as our phones, the television, or something else we are working on.
If you want to be a better listener, you have to focus truly. Eliminate all distractions so that you can tune in to the person speaking to you.
When you ask questions about what someone is saying to you, it shows that you are curious and genuinely care about what they are saying.
Asking questions also makes you a better listener because it keeps you focused on the conversation and allows you to get the best understanding possible from the person you’re talking to.
5. Don’t rush the conversation
Sometimes it is human nature to jump into a conversation or say as much as possible in as little time as possible, but it isn’t easy to truly listen if you rush the conversation.
Take time to fully cover the topic at hand. This may require you to pause and reflect upon what the other person has said before you offer up a response.
6. Avoid simply waiting for your turn to talk
Sometimes, back-and-forth dialogue turns into both people simply waiting for their turn to respond. When you’re busy thinking about your retort or what you’re going to say next, conversations can quickly turn into misunderstandings and arguments.
You’re not likely to truly understand what the other person is communicating to you if you wait to blurt out what you want to say.
It can be easy to let your mind wander during the conversation. Your thoughts may turn to the grocery list you’re making in your head or the long to-do list you have for the rest of the day.
Try to bring your focus back to the conversation at hand when you catch yourself wondering. Let the thoughts in your head go, and be mindful of the current conversation. This can be critically important for active listening. A recent study found that mindfulness was directly linked to listening to others.
The tips above can all help you to be an active listener. You can also read these extra tips here to have a better understanding about hearing vs listening in relationships.
Hearing and listening are both required for communication, but the difference between hearing vs. listening in relationships is that hearing is a passive process, and listening is incredibly active.
People hear automatically, but listening requires you to be intentional about paying attention and showing curiosity about what the other person is saying.
When you learn how to improve listening skills in a relationship, you will likely find that communication becomes more accessible. Your relationships are healthier, which improves your mental health.
Suppose you’re struggling with listening within your relationship with your spouse or significant other. In that case, the two of you may benefit from seeing a marriage or relationship therapist work on communication skills.
Sometimes, becoming a better listener can be integral for resolving ongoing problems within a relationship. Most people want to feel that their partners understand and support them, which requires good listening skills.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.