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

By Amy Gilmore, updated on October 15, 2023

Are you curious about the difference between 'active' vs. 'passive listening?'

Here is the short version of the answer:

  • 'Active listening' is the act of focusing all of your attention on what someone is saying and ensuring you understand them before responding. 
  • 'Passive listening' means that you are listening but not paying attention. 

The above answer is just a brief overview. These terms are becoming more popular as employers are focusing on training employees to actively listen. So, you can definitely benefit from sticking around to read this entire guide.

What is the Difference Between 'Active' vs. 'Passive Listening?'

The terms 'active listening' and 'passive listening' have gained popularity over recent years. In today's business world, managers are putting more of an emphasis on the importance of 'actively listening' in the office and to the customers employees serve.

  • To practice active listening, you need to turn towards the person, engage only in listening, and pay attention to the person talking the entire time they are speaking without interrupting them. After they finish, you repeat what they said to ensure that you heard them correctly. Then, you give your response.
  • 'Passive listening' is much easier. During 'passive listening,' you may engage in other activities and act disinterested in what the speaker is saying. You may interrupt frequently, and when you speak, your comments may not relate directly to what the speaker is saying.

When someone listens actively, they come across as interested and sincere. If someone is passively listening to you, you likely feel dismissed, unimportant, bothersome, and unheard.

Definition of 'Active Listening': What Does 'Active Listening' Mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there is no definition for 'active listening.' So, we are going to look at the definitions of 'active' and 'listening.'

Definition of 'Active'

'Active' is an adjective that means:

  • Characterized by action instead of complacency

It can also mean:

  • Producing action or movement
  • Engaging in something completely
  • Requiring vigorous exertion
  • Effective or having positive or desirable results
  • Energetic
  • Participating in full-time service in a military service
  • Marked by current or present use, engagement, or involvement
  • Ability to act quickly
  • Progressive or degenerative
  • Being able to participate in something

It can also be a noun that means:

  • An active person or someone who does not live a sedentary life
  • A person who is a current member of an organization
  • One who participates in something

Definition of 'Listening'

'Listening' is a verb that means:

  • To hear sound
  • To pay attention to something audible
  • To give your attention to something or consider it
  • To be on alert for a sound or message
  • To hear or lend your ear to

Definition of 'Passive Listening': What Does 'Passive Listening' Mean?

Like 'active listening,' there is no definition for the term 'passive listening' in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. So, we are going to look at the definition of 'passive.'

Definition of 'Passive'

Passive' is an adjective that means:

  • Receptive to outside influence

It can also mean:

  • Lethargic or lacking energy or a high level of attention
  • Not operational or active
  • Latent or inert
  • Existing or engaging without being active, direct, or present
  • A business activity in which an investor does not participate

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Active' vs. 'Passive Listening'

Now, we are going to look at the pronunciation of 'active' vs. 'passive listening' because it is essential to know how to correctly say words if you plan to use them in verbal communication. Furthermore, learning the pronunciation of words often helps people commit them to memory.

So, here is a pronunciation guide you can reference.

  • Use this phonetic spelling to pronounce 'active listening':

ak-tiv li-se-ning

  • Use this phonetic spelling to pronounce 'passive listening':

pa-siv li-se-ning

When and How to Use 'Active' vs. 'Passive Listening'

You know the difference between these terms now, but it can still be challenging to know when and how to use these terms. So, here are some tips that should help.

  • Use 'active listening' to imply that someone is paying close attention to what the other person is saying.

For example, you might say:

Active listening is an excellent skill if you are in customer service or sales because it shows your customers that you care about their needs and opinions. 

  • Use 'passive listening' to describe someone listening but not paying full attention.

As an example, I could say:

I often have the TV on in the background when I am working, but I am only passively listening to it while I pay attention to other things.

Sample Sentences Using 'Active' vs. 'Passive Listening'

Before you go, read these sample sentences using 'active' vs. 'passive listening.' They will help you to remember the meanings of these terms and the different ways you can use them.

Active Listening

  • During my formal assessment, my manager told me I needed to practice active listening.
  • Active listening shows people you care about what they have to say.
  • If you have trouble with active listening, there are some exercises you can do.
  • You should try actively listening to your boyfriend or girlfriend because it will likely improve your relationship.

Passive Listening

  • Passive listening is what most people do without thinking about it.
  • When someone passively listens, it feels like they are ignoring you or uninterested in what you are telling them.
  • Passive listening does not help you to live your best life.
  • When we went to couples therapy, our doctor told us that we both had a problem with passive listening.

Active Listening/Passive Listening

  • In customer service, passive listening is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Today, companies want employees who practice active listening.
  • People who have problems with work and personal relationships should consider whether they passively listen or actively listen to the people in their lives.
  • Passive listening is hearing someone, while active listening is actually listening and paying attention to what a speaker says.

Last Look: 'Active' vs. 'Passive Listening'

We covered a lot of information in this lesson. So, here is a recap of the difference between 'active' vs. 'passive listening':

  • 'Active listening' is a practice that involves someone listening to what someone is saying, ensuring they understand, and then responding.  
  • 'Passive listening' is when someone hears what someone else is saying but does not necessarily pay attention. 
  • 'Active listening' makes people feel heard, respected, and appreciated. 
  • 'Passive listening' comes across as dismissive, insincere, and uninterested. 

Terms like these often stump people learning English as a second language, as well as people who are native speakers. So, if you need to verify the meaning of a word before you use it or if you would like to expand your vocabulary while learning essential grammar skills, take a look at the other guides in the confusing words section here.

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Written By:
Amy Gilmore
Amy Gilmore is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. She has been a professional writer and editor for the past eight years. She developed a love of language arts and literature in school and decided to become a professional freelance writer after a demanding career in real estate. Amy is constantly learning to become a better writer and loves sharing tips with other writers who want to do the same.

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