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Active Listening vs Passive Listening: Is One Better Than the Other?

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Active Listening vs Passive Listening: Is One Better Than the Other?

Seems like we are inundated with information every day. I don’t know about you but sometimes, I find it difficult to unplug and not feel like I need to be in front of a screen or talking to someone.

It sure feels like we are digesting information and communicating with others in one form or another all the time. With so much information coming at us from all angles, it’s easy to become distracted and not give important items the attention they deserve. It’s very easy to default to passive listening pretty much all the time.

Passive Listening or Active Listening?

If we compare active listening vs passive listening, is one better than the other? As we will find out in the overall picture, one is better than the other for many situations but not necessarily all.

Clear communication between people makes for happier and more fulfilling relationships. Much distress comes from unclear or partial communication. It’s easy to forget that listening is half of all communication between individuals. Some might argue it is more important than the talking part.

Both active and passive listening have their places where they are effective. Read on to find out the difference between active listening vs passive listening and if one is better than the other.

Passive Listening

So what is passive listening? Passive listening is hearing something or someone without giving it your full attention. It’s typically fairly one-sided communication with little to no feedback given to what’s being said or listened to. It requires very little effort other than hearing what is being said and even then, the passive listener can miss parts of the conversation because they aren’t fully paying attention.

Typically, a passive listener won’t even nod his or her head in agreement, maintain eye contact, or give much of an indication that he or she is listening. We tend to slip into passive listening quite often and in many instances, that’s fine.

Suitable Situations

Passive listening is just fine for a wide variety of situations. Think of it as perfectly suitable most of the time when you are in multi-task mode.

A great example is what I am doing right now. I am listening to music while writing this article. I am paying far more attention to writing this article than I am to the music I am listening to. From time to time, I notice what song is playing and either sing along in my head or just acknowledge the music but I’m not really paying attention. Multi-tasking and passive listening go together well.

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Some other suitable situations include things like:

  • Listening to music or news while working out
  • Watching television while catching up on work emails
  • Checking your phone while listening to a speaker at a conference you aren’t that interested in
  • Listening in on a several-hours-long all company product meeting update
  • Letting your spouse unload a lengthy diatribe to you regarding how horrible their day at work was
  • Hearing your kid ask for ice cream for the 6th time in a minute

Active Listening

As you might imagine, active listening is different than passive listening. Active listening is when you focus your attention to fully understand and comprehend what someone is saying. In many cases, you will be providing feedback either intermittently or when the person speaking is done talking.

You are giving the person and the information your full-on committed attention to completely absorb what is being said. You are fully present in the moment, focusing as much of your attention and energy on the individual speaking and acknowledging them in both verbal and non-verbal manners.

As you will see, active listening is suitable for a wide variety of situations.

Suitable Situations

  • When your spouse or significant other has a serious subject they’d like to discuss with you
  • Talking to your boss about leading a major project initiative
  • Business meetings where you have active roles and responsibilities in
  • Just about all situations where the subject matter is more serious and you are actively involved in the relationship
  • Listening to a good friend share with you their recent challenges and sharing your input and thoughts back to them
  • Talking to your children as they tell you about any kind of struggles they are having or help they are looking for

When Active Listening Is Better

An easy rule of thumb to follow is to be an active listener in any interaction where the relationship and the subject matter is important. You should employ your active listening skills when you need to really absorb the information being dispersed.

This could be when your spouse wants to talk about something serious or your boss is talking to you about an upcoming big project. It could be your teenage daughter wanting to talk to you about the challenges she is having at school or your best friend discussing his struggling relationship.

When you need to be fully present and pay attention, this is when you should be actively listening.

On the other hand, passive listening is perfectly fine when it’s not important to ensure that you are getting every detail or to show the person speaking that you are absorbing the information.

An easy way to assess it is to ask yourself if what you are listening to needs to be remembered and potentially acted upon. If the answer is no and you can envision yourself multi-tasking while listening, then you are perfectly fine using passive listening.

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Do you feel like you could use some help sharpening your active listening skills? Read on to learn how!

How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Being skilled at active listening is beneficial to all major relationships. Some people are naturally good at it, others, like therapists, are trained to be adept. It’s something that a little practice can be very helpful in.

Here are some real-life tips to help improve your active listening skills.

1. Avoid External and Internal Distractions

External is pretty easy. When the other person is speaking, put your phone down and don’t keep glancing at the computer monitor. Do whatever needs to be done to eliminate external distractions.

Internal takes a bit more practice. Every time you feel your mind start to wander away from what the other person is saying, stop and regain focus on what is being shared. It takes practice, but you can cut out the internal noise in your own head.

2. Listen to the Content and Context of Their Words

It’s important to listen carefully to the words being spoken by someone (content), and it’s also important to listen to how the words and ideas are being used (context). The words will tell you specifically what the other person is talking about.

Keeping an ear on the context will allow you to pick up common themes or sometimes underlying things that don’t always get explicitly said. It’s about listening to the whole bundle of words and ideas.

3. Maintain Eye Contact

Make sure you maintain as much eye contact as possible without going over the top. You don’t want to stare unblinking into the other person’s eyes for 10 minutes – that’s a little much. What’s key here is to maintain a fairly regular amount of eye contact while the other person is speaking. It will help them to see that you are truly focused on them.

Speaking of which…

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4. Be Mindful of Your Body Language

Both your body language and the other person’s are important. You want to project the kind of body language that shows you are paying attention.

Your body should be facing the person speaking and leaning towards them to some degree. It’s also a good idea to watch the other person’s body language while they speak. Remember, much communication is non-verbal.

5. Watch for Emotion

There is much to be learned when watching the emotion with which someone tells you something. As we all know, most people don’t deliver information in a robotic-like monologue. We can tell when someone is happy or sad or angry or hurt or excited when they are telling us something. Pay attention to the type of emotion that the other person is exhibiting when they’re talking to you.

6. Be Okay With Silence

Most of us get uncomfortable quickly when there is a gap or an extended silence in a conversation. We feel the need to fill that quiet space with some noise, usually our own selves talking. It’s a nervous response and is perfectly natural.

It’s worth remembering that letting a pause or gap in the conversation draw out and continue can help allow the other person’s thoughts to flow out naturally. Many times, a fill in the gap statement will interrupt a train of thought. Be okay with having the silence linger for a bit to allow the thought process of the other person to flow unimpeded.

7. Encourage Verbally

When the other person appears to need a bit of verbal encouragement, feel free to provide it. Sometimes, when sharing something of importance, it’s easy to get a bit nervous. Knowing that the other person is encouraging us to go on can be very helpful and allows us to feel more confident in what we are saying.

8. Ask Open-Ended Questions for Clarity

To ensure that you fully understand the story or message, sometimes it’s a good idea to ask a question. It’s usually best to ask open-ended questions because it will allow the speaker to expound on the story and not answer with a yes or no.

Questions that can be answered with a yes or a no tend to slow the story down or cause it to stop altogether. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, will many times lead to more details and an expanded story or context.

9. Encourage and Affirm

If needed, you can encourage the person to continue speaking or tell them they are doing a great job. This will help build trust and make the other person feel more at ease when speaking to you.

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You should also provide affirmation that you fully understand what the other person is saying. Nothing feels quite as good as feeling understood. It is one of the most basic human needs and goes a long way in a conversation like this.

Conclusion

Active listening vs passive listening: Is one better than the other one?

As we’ve seen, both active listening and passive listening have their place depending on the situation. Neither one is truly better than the other one.

Passive listening works just fine in situations where you don’t have to devote 100% of your attention to someone or something or can multitask.

That said, there are certain situations where using your active listening skills is much more beneficial. If it’s something important that needs to be shared between individuals, it’s best to use your active listening skills.

Practice the techniques listed above if your active listening competency could use some improvement. The important relationships in your life will thank you.

More Tips on Becoming a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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Mat Apodaca

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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