Listening And Hearing

A Matter of Definition

I was on the debate team for a while in college. For tournaments, I donned stern librarian glasses and a corporate suit — odd for a normally frumpish thrift-store girl. I had a debate partner named Helmut. I can’t justifiably make fun of his name because at the time my last name was Gay. We both had name issues.
For a codependent middle-child like me, debate was a thrilling way to argue without hurting anybody’s feelings. I thrived in the regulated conflict and enjoyed my yellow legal pads and boxes of evidence cards. I wasn’t notable at cross-examination. I didn’t have a cut-throat drive to win. My closing arguments rarely won. But I loved the whole experience. Debate was my first script for engagement with head-on disagreement. The regular practice of opposition shaped my voice as a woman.
One key aspect of debate is an agreement of definitions. At the outset, both sides must agree on the resolution terms. Sometimes opposing teams will go back and forth, unwilling to concede that a certain word has a shared meaning. It’s important to clarify the meaning of pivotal words before entering a significant dialogue.
With that in mind, as we enter this series, Choosing to Hear, I’d like to clarify two words. Some of you may or may not agree with my definitions. And that’s ok. Let’s just decide I am describing what I know from my limited experience. As I wade into the spiritual and physical implications of hearing loss, for the sake of clarity let’s make a distinction between the words ‘listen’ and ‘hear’.

To Hear

Definition — to detect by perceiving sound through the ear

According to Miriam Webster —  HEAR, verb \ˈhir\ : to perceive or apprehend by the ear, to be aware of (sound) through the ear

To Listen

Definition — to hear and pay attention to someone

According to Miriam Webster – LISTEN, verb \ˈli-sən\ : to hear something with thoughtful attention, to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc., to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true


Both words are action words, verbs which indicate response to sound. However, there is nuance between the two. Hearing is the affect of sound in the ears. Listening is the affect of sound in the mind and soul. Used in a Sentence: When I chose to get hearing aids and improve my ability to hear, I still had a long way to go in my journey toward learning to listen. To hear is a mechanical response to vibrations and sound waves.  To listen is a posture of mental and emotional attention.

It is possible to hear without listening.  It is possible to listen without hearing.

In terms of relationship, the differences matter greatly.


When you think about the difference between hearing and listening, what strikes you?

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8 thoughts on “Listening and Hearing

  1. Pingback: The Day the World Un-Muted ‹ Kelley J. Leigh

  2. Dawn Pirtle

    I love you comment on the differnce between the two. I totally agree and have been in the situation where I’m talking with someone and I know or realize at the end of the conversation they have heard but not listened. :-(


  3. Susan Cummings

    Listening is our lifeline in any relationship. I’m trying hard to listen to those around me and even harder to God. Without that intimacy life can become very self absorbed ……..and lonely. Thank you for the clarification!


  4. Kristine D'Ambrosio

    Jesus spoke in parables because He knew not everyone had ears to hear…that there were people who were only hearing. When we really want intimacy with God and people we need to have a hearing /listening heart! I have learned that I have heard God but only started to listen to Him when I bend my will ..stand still ,ask and receive the gift of listening.


      1. Kristine D'Ambrosio

        Hahaha! I wish I could put my thoughts down like you true and beautiful! Looking forward to what comes next!


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