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

Updated February 3, 2023

Passive and active listening are often distinguishable by the specific actions involved in each type of listening. Effective listeners can use passive listening in some situations but are more likely to use active listening in many scenarios where comprehension, recall and engagement are important. In this article, we discuss the differences between passive and active listening, discuss the benefits of active listening, and how to more effectively use active listening.

Related: 4 Communication Styles

What is passive vs. active listening?

The main difference between active and passive listening is that active listening is more effective than passive listening because individuals practicing active listening can comprehend the speaker's words more easily and also show the speaker that they are paying attention. Here is an explanation of each type of listening:

Active listening

Individuals practicing active listening pay close attention to the speaker and the intention behind their words, while consistently showing the speaker that they fully understand the ideas being expressed. Individuals that are actively listening often nod their heads, respond to statements with words that show they are listening and use other forms of body language to convey they are fully engaged. This form of listening not only helps individuals retain more information from their conversations but also gives the speaker a more positive impression of the listener's ability to pay attention to their words.

Passive listening

A key difference between active and passive listening is the response of the listener. When using passive listening, the listener doesn't respond to the speaker. Instead, professionals practicing active listening just process the information they are receiving without commenting on it or reacting. While many individuals prefer to use active listening in a professional setting, passive listening is still appropriate in some situations, such as during an academic lecture or speech.

When to use passive listening

Listeners should use passive listening in scenarios where they do not need to pay full attention to the meaning of the speaker's words or express through their actions that they are listening. Some scenarios where passive listening can be useful include:

Unrelated information

If a speaker is communicating information that does not relate to you or is not being addressed directly to you, it's acceptable to listen passively to the information the speaker is sharing. For instance, if a speaker is communicating to a group of individuals, but is directing their comments toward a specific person, the other individuals in the group can practice passive listening.

Casual conversations

Sometimes, casual conversations include many pieces of information that are not important to listen to actively . For instance, a casual conversation with a close friend may not require individuals to pay attention to every word or show the speaker they are fully engaged, as the topics they are covering in the conversation may not be of high importance.

When to use active listening

There are many scenarios where active listening is more valuable than passive listening, as people often perceive active listening as more engaging and respectful. Individuals commonly practice active listening in the following scenarios:

One-on-one conversations

When two individuals are engaged in conversation, it is common for both parties to practice active listening. Nodding and making eye contact help show you are fully engaged in conversations. Additionally, saying short confirming phrases can also help show that you are actively listening during a one-on-one conversation.

Job interviews

Job interviews test individuals' capacity to display their unique skills, abilities and experience through conversation. Interviewers often look for candidates who are actively paying attention to their statements relating to the job description, the company and other important pieces of information associated with the position. Active listening can allow interviewees to comprehend many of the more subtle aspects of the job and show their interviewer that they are fully engaged in their conversation.

Related: Building Communication Skills: 9 Types of Listening


Debates consist of individuals exchanging well-thought-out ideas in an attempt to display the most logically sound arguments. Debating involves listening to the arguments made by opponents and responding based on those arguments. By actively listening to the opposing arguments, individuals can better prepare their own statements by responding based on information included in the previous statements.

Other important conversations

Individuals should practice active listening in any conversation that is deemed to be important. This shows respect to the person they are speaking with and allows the professional to process important information. Here is a list of a few other important conversations that may require active listening:

  • Fundraising meetings

  • Project management meetings

  • Training courses

Related: Active Listening Skills: Definition and Examples

Benefits of active listening

There are many benefits to active listening. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Information gathering: It may be easier for individuals to gather information when they are actively listening during conversations. Listeners who are actively listening often ask clarifying questions in order to better understand the speaker.

  • Information recall: If individuals actively listen to conversations, they are more likely to remember specific pieces of information the speaker expressed during the conversation.

  • Engagement: Active listeners are likely to be perceived as being fully engaged in their conversations. This engagement has the benefit of making the speaker feel you are listening to them and that you are comprehending the information they are communicating. Many individuals may react more positively to individuals they feel are fully engaged in conversation with them.

Related: The Importance of Good Listening and How To Listen Effectively

Tips for being an active listener

Individuals can more easily achieve active listening through several direct actions:

  • Use active body language: Listeners can use non-verbal communication to convey their engagement. For example, making eye contact with an individual when they're speaking allows you to more easily achieve active listening.

  • Ask questions: Asking questions can help active listeners show their interest in the speaker's words and help them comprehend more of the information. For example, if a speaker states that "Our sales were up 15%" an active listener may respond with, "which quarter?" to gain more context and convey that they are paying full attention to the speaker.

  • Make eye contact: Maintaining eye contact can help you achieve active listening by showing speakers you are paying attention to the conversation and can also assist in your comprehension. You don't need to maintain eye contact throughout the entirety of a conversation, but some eye contact is always helpful for active listening.

  • Focus: By limiting outside distractions, individuals can achieve active listening much more easily. Limiting distractions, such as other conversations, outside noises can all increase the ability for listeners to remain involved in conversations.


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