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Passive Listening: Definition, Examples, and Comparisons - HRDQ

Passive Listening: Definition, Examples, and Comparisons

When we think of communication between two people, we often first think of the person actively speaking. However, we all know that communication is a two-way street, and a one-way conversation won't usually get you very far.

There's a lot of discussion about the importance of active listening in the workplace, but is passive listening ever appropriate? What is passive listening, exactly, and how does it compare to active listening?

Understanding the difference between passive and active listening can be incredibly useful for managers and owners.

Not only can it help you be a better leader, but it can also help you gauge the engagement of your employees. 

What Is Passive Listening?

Passive listening is when you are hearing someone or something without putting 100% of your attention towards listening. This is a type of communication that is pretty one-sided. The individual listening passively will often not give any feedback on what they are listening to or a person speaking.

Listening passively does not require much effort at all. All that is happening is the listener is hearing what is being said. Sometimes, a passive listener might not even catch all of what is being said because they don't have all of their attention on the speaker.

Passively Listening to Conversation

Passive listeners might not respond to information shared with them, or they might not fully process it. Several different factors could create this circumstance, including lack of interest, distractions, boredom, and confusion.

When a person listens passively, they aren't actively engaged in what is being said. Instead, they might be thinking about something else entirely and only putting a portion of their focus on the conversation.

The art of effective listening and being more present: Learning to Listen

What Are Examples of Passive Listening?

You can probably find countless samples of passive listening in both your work and home life.

Let's say you're in a meeting with a subordinate, discussing an upcoming project you want them to work on. You outline your general concept for the project and ask for their feedback, only to find that they only have a relatively blank expression.

Another example of passive listening is if you're at home and want to talk to your spouse about your dinner plans for the week. They're looking at their laptop while you're talking to them and only occasionally offer mumblings to acknowledge that you're talking. When it's their turn to give their opinion on what you should get from the grocery store, they don't have anything to say, or they appear to be coming up with something to say after having been disengaged from the conversation for its entirety.

Passive Listening in the Car

Passive listening doesn't always have to be negative, though. For example, you could passively listen to music while you are driving, only giving some of your attention to the music while the rest of your attention is on the task of operating your vehicle. Similarly, you might choose to passively listen to a podcast while washing your dishes, allotting some of your focus on scrubbing your pots and giving only part of your attention to what's being said.

What Are the Signs of Passive Listening?

Someone might not be engaged with what is being said for several reasons. They might not be interested; they might be distracted; they might be preoccupied with other things or something else entirely.

In some cases, a person passively listening might tune out because they feel overwhelmed by the conversation. Someone unable to follow what is being said might stop fully engaging because they are experiencing anxiety about participating.

It's often pretty easy to spot when someone is only passively listening. Their body language is notably different from that of a person actively listening.

Passively Listening in a Meeting

Some of the signs you can look out for include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Turning away
  • Using a phone or computer
  • Frequently not remembering what was just said
  • Appearing bored
  • Appearing distracted
  • Not chiming into the conversation at appropriate times

Be careful when using body language to identify passive listening. Many of these behaviors are shared with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and autism, which do not preclude giving your conversation full attention.

It's important to note that just because someone passively listens doesn't mean they aren't giving all their attention. Passive listening can also mean that a person isn't reacting to what is being said. It's possible that the individual is completely tuned in but doesn't feel it is appropriate to speak or is anxious about doing so.

When Is an Appropriate Time to Use Passive Listening?

There are a lot of situations where passive listening isn't a good idea, but there are also several suitable circumstances for listening passively.

For example, there's often nothing wrong with someone passively listening to music while working on something, so long as the music isn't distracting them from the task. The same goes for watching TV while folding the laundry or turning on the radio while driving.

What about work contexts, though? Are there any times when it's appropriate to listen passively?

Passively Listening

In general, passive listening in a one-on-one conversation or a small group format isn't just unproductive in the office; it's also rude. It can make the person speaking feel like what they're saying isn't of value, and it can also mean that important information isn't being fully communicated to the people it is relevant to.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't any situations where passive listening is a reasonable approach.

For example, let's say there is a multi-hour-long company update, only some of which pertains to your particular department. Actively listening to the parts that are relevant to you and then passively listening to other parts of the meeting could be appropriate, depending on the circumstance.

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening occurs when a person fully engages in what is being said or what they are listening to. This is the process through which someone can fully receive information from another person or a group of people.

When a person is listening actively, they have 100% of their attention on the conversation at hand. They take the time to understand what is being said and don't interrupt others when they're speaking.

This is a beneficial skill in the workplace, and the ideal would be for all interactions to involve active rather than passive listening. Listening actively means fully understanding what is being said during meetings and conversations, not just what you think someone would say or what you want them to say.

Active listening is an essential soft skill that many employers hold in high regard. That being said, it's also a vital skill for managers and owners to have, too. When you're speaking with your employees, it's crucial that they can tell that you are entirely present and paying attention when they're speaking.

Woman Actively Listening

When you practice active listening, it shows the other people involved that:

  • You're interested in what is being discussed
  • You're ready to participate in the conversation and help achieve the goal being outlined
  • You're a team player
  • You believe that the person speaking has something valuable to offer

Active listening goes beyond focusing all your attention on what is being said. When there's an appropriate time to speak (i.e., not interrupting someone else), the active listener might rephrase what the person said to make sure they understood or ask a question that furthers the conversation.

While another person is speaking, an active listener also demonstrates that they hear what is being said by nodding and giving other non-verbal cues. Their body language is positive, and they make frequent eye contact.

What Are Examples of Active Listening?

In a healthy work environment, active listening occurs frequently. The same could be said of personal relationships. This is because active listening happens when people are fully engaged in communicating, rather than being held back by distractions, lack of interest, anxiety, or other things vying for a person's attention.

Active Listening in a Meeting

Let's look at some good examples of active listening in action.


When a person is actively listening, they might choose to paraphrase what the person said to them after they finished their statement. This can be incredibly valuable in the workplace, where precise communication is vital.

Participating in the Conversation

For example, let's say that your subordinate told you they need to take two days off starting Thursday due to a death in the family. You might repeat back to them that they need Thursday and Friday off this week. Doing so helps to ensure that you understand what is being said (that they need this Thursday and Friday off as opposed to next Thursday and Friday) but also shows the person that you're engaged and listening.

If a person is sharing a complicated idea and you want to show that you heard them and clarify their main points, paraphrasing what they said can be a great active listening tool that benefits everyone involved.

Demonstrating Concern

Demonstrating Concern

Sometimes, the person speaking is discussing an issue they don't know how to solve. An active listener might, in this circumstance, express their eagerness to help solve the problem while also demonstrating their concern.

Building Trust

Building Trust With Employee

Active listening can also be a great way to build trust. For example, let's say that an employee comes to you because they have a personal issue interfering with their work. If you passively listen, the employee might feel like you don't value them and that you didn't care about what they were going through. If you listen actively, it can help build trust between you and your team.

Other ways to build trust among your peers: Trust: The Ultimate Test

What Are the Signs of Active Listening?

It is pretty easy to tell if someone is actively listening or if they are only passively listening.

Actively Listening in a Conversation

Some of the signs of active listening include:

  • Making eye contact
  • Smiling
  • Mirroring facial expressions
  • An attentive posture
  • Offering auditory feedback
  • Encouraging the speaker to continue
  • Not interrupting
  • Paraphrasing what is being said
  • Stays focused on the topic at hand
  • Asking thoughtful questions
  • Being empathetic

Are you wondering how to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way of being fully present in conversations at work? Check out this article about overcoming barriers to active listening.

When Is an Appropriate Time to Use Active Listening?

Active listening is suitable in many different situations. Generally, a manager or owner will want to practice active listening as much as possible unless they feel passive listening is appropriate.

Actively Listening

Listening actively any time you are engaged in an interaction where the relationship and the subject at hand is important. When you want to absorb what is being said, you will want to be an active listener.

How Does Passive Listening Compare to Active Listening?

As you can see, passive and active listening stand in opposition.

Listening During a Meeting

Let's break down exactly how the two compare.

  • A passive listener won't provide feedback or ask questions, making it unclear whether or not they understand what is being said. Active listeners will demonstrate that they're receiving the information by nodding, asking questions, using positive body language, and more.
  • A passive listener doesn't demonstrate a positive attitude and instead seems distracted or not fully present. On the other hand, an active listener uses eye contact, body language, and more to display their positive attitude.
  • A passive listener might only pick up bits and pieces of what is said, while an active listener will pay attention to everything being communicated.
  • Passive communication is usually a one-way street, while active listening is a two-way conversation.
  • Passive listening doesn't help to further understanding of the topic, while active listening can result in a deeper understanding of the subject.
  • Passive listening doesn't require much effort, while active listening requires a lot.

Listening is just as significant as talking when it comes to effective communication. You can learn about more essential types of listening skills in this article.

Are You a Passive or an Active Listener?

Things run much more smoothly when you have a workplace full of active listeners. Your employees aren't frequently interrupting one another, and information isn't getting lost in translation due to most people only half listening to what is being said.

Being an active listener is also essential as a manager or a business owner. It can help you better gauge how engaged your employees are and also help you forge better relationships with everyone at your company. 

Skilled Listener in the Workplace

Listening is an often overlooked part of communication that is critical to a successful organization. Sometimes, it can be challenging to know how we come off to other people and how our vision of our listening style translates to how people experience us as communication partners. If you're interested in learning more about your communication style, check out What's My Communication Style.

Do you have any questions about passive listening, active listening, or their differences? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd love to assist you however we can!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.