Active Listening vs Passive Listening: What's the Difference?

Published in


June 9, 2023


Milan Kordestani

Entrepreneur, writer, and founder of 3 purpose-driven companies oriented toward giving individuals control over their own discourse and creation. Milan works to produce socially positive externalities through a mindset of social architecture.

Hi! I'm Milan, an LA based founder and writer, architecting impact-first businesses.

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Effective communication is a critical skill in both professional and personal settings. While much focus is given to the art of speaking to convey ideas and vision, perhaps the most crucial aspect of communication is listening.

There are two main types of listening: active and passive listening. While they may look the same on the outside, they are two entirely different endeavors with entirely different outcomes.

In this article, we’ll discuss the similarities and differences between active vs passive listening and offer some advice on when to use them. Let’s dive in!

Active Listening vs Passive Listening: What's the Difference?

Have you ever been running errands with your significant other when he or she runs into an old friend? You stand, listening as the two of them attempt to catch each other up on the past 7 years of their lives. You’re listening, but while you’re listening you’re also thinking about how hungry you are and about how you hope there isn’t a line at the car wash, your next stop on your errand journey. This is passive listening. You’re hearing someone speak though you’re not fully engaged.

Now let’s change up the scenario and say that you are the one who runs into an old friend unexpectedly. How does your listening change while catching up with a good friend you haven’t seen for many years? Chances are you actively listen to your friend. You give them your full attention, ask questions, and genuinely want to know more.

This example shows the stark difference between active and passive listening. But let’s break them down even further.

What is Active Listening?

When it comes to active vs passive listening, understanding the distinction is crucial. Active listening is the act of giving someone your full attention. It involves avoiding distractions so you can engage with them on a deep level. Active listening also requires you to WANT to hear what the other person is saying. This attitude helps you to empathize with the speaker so you can understand their whole message rather than just recognize the words they’ve used.

Here’s what active listening isn’t: It isn’t getting lost in your thoughts, waiting for your turn to speak.

Benefits of Active Listening

Some people are naturally active listeners while others need to practice the skill. While it may not be easy to master, there are numerous benefits to active listening such as:

Better Communication

Active listening is perhaps the most important component of communication because it keeps you engaged with the speaker in a meaningful way. Active listening also makes the speaker feel heard and validated, which prompts them to share more of their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

Better Relationships

Active listening helps you to understand the other person on a deeper level. You gain awareness of their point of view and can then respond with kindness and empathy. Active listening also facilitates trust, which is invaluable no matter if the relationship is with a spouse, child, friend, or coworker.

Increased Productivity

Active listening is invaluable in the workplace. It can eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) misunderstandings, clarify expectations, and improve problem-solving skills, thereby increasing your team’s productivity.

Resolve Conflicts

Active listening is a powerful skill that helps you to understand what someone else is saying. And not just on an intellectual level but an emotional one as well. This helps you to find common ground, reduce any tension or defensiveness that occurs with misunderstandings, and resolve conflicts more effectively.

Personal Growth

Practicing active listening helps you to develop your interpersonal skills. You find yourself becoming more empathetic toward and respectful of other people. This makes you more approachable and you then find that people want to open up to you and share their thoughts and ideas. And as you gather so much important information, you become more knowledgeable yourself.

Examples of Active Listening

How can you begin practicing active listening? The following are some examples to give a try:

Maintain Eye Contact

How many times have you tried to speak with your partner, child, or coworker and they weren’t even looking at you? And how did it make you feel? Most likely like what you had to say was not important.

Be sure to maintain eye contact with your conversation partner. This lets them know that you are fully paying attention. It also validates what they are saying and makes them feel heard.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is a great way to dig and gain a deeper understanding of what someone has said. Don’t interrupt the other person to ask a question. Simply wait for them to pause, then ask.

Use Verbal and Non-Verbal Cues

Verbal cues help the speaker to know you are engaged in the conversation. You might try and offer something like, “I see what you mean, “ or “Yes, I understand.” Non-verbal cues can include making eye contact, smiling, and nodding your head. You can also lean forward in your chair to show how engaged you are in the conversation.

Use Empathy

Active listening helps you to not only clearly receive another’s message but to also understand on an emotional level where they are coming from. By responding with empathy you show the speaker you value their feelings.

When to Use Active Listening

There are many instances where active listening will offer profoundly more benefits than passive listening. The following are some scenarios where active listening should be practiced:

  • One-on-one conversations
  • Job interviews
  • Debates
  • Fundraising meetings
  • Project management meetings
  • Training courses
  • Parent-teacher conferences

What is Passive Listening?

If we took a poll of the world’s population, and everyone answered honestly, we would no doubt have confirmation that most people are passive listeners. That is they hear what other people are saying but they don’t actively engage in the conversation.

Passive listeners are often lost in their internal dialogue. They generally don’t ask questions to understand on a deeper level or offer any kind of feedback, but merely wait for the speaker to end so they can begin.

When we compare active vs passive listening, it becomes clear that passive listening offers no benefits and is marked by various limitations, including


When someone is not actively listening to another, it’s very easy for them to misunderstand information. How many romantic arguments, failed high school exams, and lost revenue can be linked to someone not fully paying attention to what someone else has said?

Reduced Productivity

While many of us are guilty of not fully listening to others, we don’t particularly like it when others don’t listen to what we have to say. When leaders don’t listen to their teams and dismiss their opinions and differing viewpoints, it makes employees check out, phone it in and look for validation - and employment - elsewhere.

Missed Opportunities

Networking is incredibly important for success. Through connecting with others we raise our professional profile, grow our brand, and gain access to novel ideas and strategies. But think of how many opportunities you miss by not fully listening to what others are saying!

Examples of Passive Listening

How many of the following are you guilty of?

1) Daydreaming

Do you daydream or let your mind wander while someone else is speaking?

2) Silence

Do you ask questions or offer any feedback? Do you paraphrase what the person has said to show comprehension, or do you just sit there, silent, waiting for them to finish so you can say something?

3) Distractions

So many people seem unable to put their phones down for even 10 minutes. How often do you check your phone while someone else is speaking?

4) Interrupting

Are you guilty of interrupting or changing the subject before the speaker has even had a chance to finish?

5) No Eye Contact

Are you able to make and hold eye contact with the speaker to show you are paying attention, or do you let your eyes wander around the room? Do you have closed body language? For example, do you sit there with your arms crossed? This signals to the speaker that you are not interested in what they have to say.

When to Use Passive Listening

Believe it or not, there are some scenarios where it is okay to use passive listening. In these scenarios, it wouldn’t be necessary for you to give your full attention to the speaker.  However, it's important to understand the difference between active listening vs passive listening and when each approach is appropriate.

An example would be you are part of a group but the speaker is talking to one specific individual. Let’s say you are part of a tour group and someone from the group has asked a question that pertains only to their return flight home. You wouldn’t need to give your full attention to the answer they receive.

You may also be out to dinner with a group of friends and multiple people are discussing a topic you are not familiar with (or that interested in). It’s okay for you to take a few moments to focus on your food and have your private thoughts.

Remember, active listening vs passive listening is not a black-and-white dichotomy. Essentially any conversation you are part of where it wouldn’t be rude of you or where you don’t need to consume the information offered is one where passive listening would be acceptable.


You hopefully now understand the differences between active listening vs passive listening. Good communication builds trust and connections, and it can also increase productivity and empower people. Active listening is what enables good communication. It is the bedrock of effective communication. Passive listening, on the other hand, serves no real purpose. It is acceptable in certain circumstances but doesn’t offer any real benefits and should mostly be avoided.

The bottom line is, the choice between active vs passive listening ultimately lies in your hands. If you are interested in improving your relationships and setting yourself up for success both at work and in your relationships, practice active listening as much as you can!