The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

Do you often find that you and your spouse are having the same argument over and over again? You find yourself repeating once again the well thought out reasons you have for your stance on the matter, and your spouse does not seem to be understanding or even acknowledging what you are saying. You probably even keep hearing the same old defensive excuses that your spouse uses as evidence for his/her side of the disagreement. But why is it that you guys can’t seem to get past this? These repetitive conflicts keep happening on a daily/weekly/monthly basis because of a failure to effectively communicate and listen to one another.

The fact is, there is a difference between hearing and listening when it comes to effective communication. Hearing is merely our brain registering that there is a noise coming from something in our environment whether it be a baby crying, dog barking, phone ringing, or our boss explaining next quarter’s goals at the Monday morning meeting you nodded your way through. Listening is a bit different. Listening effectively requires that we hear the information, process it, outwardly acknowledge it in some way, and then move forward with our response. This is where many couples miss the mark with each other.

In the case of these repetitive arguments we have at home with our spouse that get rehashed over and over again, each partner is likely failing to listen to their spouse’s opinions and are only hearing the noise coming out of their partner’s mouth. They hear/see their partner speaking words, but all that is going through their own head is what they will say next and how they can disprove how what their spouse just said is totally inaccurate or plainly false. When couples aren’t listening to one another and are internally plotting their response while the other person speaks, each partner will keep repeating some version of what they have said throughout the argument as an attempt to be understood.

In order to break this cycle one or both of you must stop and truly listen to what your partner is saying. How do you do this you might ask? The first step is to slow down your thoughts and emotions as you listen to your spouse speak. Do this by taking deep breaths or use a mindfulness exercise to focus your mind on the present conversation. Next, take the time to acknowledge what your partner has said. You can do this by simply repeating back to them what you heard them say, i.e. “I hear you saying that you are upset with the way I acted at the office party last night.” Pro tip: only repeat back what you heard them say, not your opinion on what they had to say or evidence that disproves their position on the matter. Your partner needs to feel heard and needs to feel like you understand where they are coming from. Once you are able to slow down and reflect back what you have heard, check in with your partner to see if you are understanding them accurately.

After you have executed this active listening strategy you may find that your spouse has calmed down a bit, and is more willing to hear your side of the story as well. All in all, we want to feel understood within our relationships whether they be friendly, romantic, or professional. While effectively listening to your partner does not guarantee that they will effectively listen to you back, you can take the first step in breaking this unhelpful cycle and move your relationship toward a healthier and more productive state. For extra assistance with learning and practicing effective communication strategies, consider working with a licensed mental health professional.

Dr. Lauren Barron is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with engaged, newlywed, and married couples to build successful and resilient relationships. If you would like to schedule a free consultation with Lauren today, give her a call at (713)364-9748.


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