Understand why active listening is better than passive listening

Strong communication skills are the cornerstone of success in the workplace, and listening lies at the heart. But as you likely know, listening is a lot more than hearing. But not to the passive listener…

In this article, understand what passive listening is, find out about its preferred counterpart active listening, and discover the telltale signs of a passive listener, the disadvantages of this communication style, and how to improve your active listening skills for the workplace.

What is passive listening?

Passive listening is a one-sided communication style, where you hear what someone is saying but aren't truly listening. It's possible that the listener is zoning in and out of the conversation and isn't catching everything that's said. It's also possible that the person is paying attention to the conversation, but isn't actively engaging with it by offering verbal and non-verbal responses.

There are many reasons a person might listen passively, including boredom, confusion, and distraction. Passive listeners might not even realise that they aren't actively engaged in a conversation, if they've drifted off into a daydream thinking about the washing they've left in the machine.

Active listening versus passive listening

While passive listening is little more than hearing, active listening includes responses that show the speaker that you understand and empathise with what they are saying. 

Active listening is focused listening, and establishes a deeper connection between speaker and listener. According to researchers Sandra E. Spataro and Janel Block, this is because the listener gives the speaker their full, undivided attention via enquiry, reflection, respect, and empathy.

Active listening is a skill that doesn't come easily and it requires conscious effort and practice.  However, it's an essential skill in the workplace, especially if you're in a management or leadership role.

Examples of passive listening in the workplace

Passive listening manifests in many ways in the workplace and it's normally because of tech. Some examples are excusable, others are not. Here are a few examples to be aware of, especially if you're working with a team, speaking to a person one-to-one, are a manager or leader, or working remotely:

  • Delayed, generic, or no responses: If a colleague ghosts your question, doesn't respond immediately, or supplies a generic response, it may be an indication that their mind is elsewhere.

  • Notification distractions: If a colleague constantly glances at their phone, email, or app notifications, their mind is not entirely focused on the conversation at hand.

  • Side conversations: If a group meeting is taking place, some employees may be having conversations on the side via private message, which takes away their focus.

  • Frequent multi-tasking: In virtual meetings, some people are obviously working on unrelated tasks and not taking notes, meaning they aren't genuinely involved.

  • Non-verbal disinterest cues: If someone is slouching, distracted, or does not maintain eye contact, their heart is not in the conversation and their mind may have wandered.

  • Minimal contribution: If an employee isn't actively contributing to a conversation, or is doing so in a minimal way, such as clicking the clapping emoji on Teams with everyone else, they are likely not paying full attention.

Signs and characteristics of a passive listener

If you're emotionally intelligent and self-aware, you can probably intuitively detect when someone isn't listening properly. Passive listeners exhibit certain signs and characteristics that suggest that they aren't fully engaged with the conversation, such as:

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Minimal nods, smiles, or other non-verbal cues

  • Engaging in distracting activities, such as checking their phone or fidgeting

  • Delayed responses to questions

  • Interrupting the speaker with unrelated questions, or repeating questions

  • Off-topic responses

  • Minimal follow-up questions or deep-dive questions

  • Brief, monosyllabic answers

  • A distant expression

  • Difficulty recalling key points or actions

  • Closed off body language or restlessness

Be aware, though, that each person has an individual personality and communication style. Plus, there are several excusable or understandable reasons a person might not be engaged in a conversation. After all, we aren't 100% on it all of the time. Examples include:

  • They could be overwhelmed with information they can't process

  • The topic may not be relevant

  • There could be a language barrier

  • They may have social anxiety

  • They might have a personal issue on their mind

  • They could be physically or emotionally fatigued

  • They might lack confidence

  • They might have an introverted personality

  • There could be a conflict with a colleague, resulting in emotional distancing

  • They may be afraid of disagreements or confrontation

  • They might have been ignored or dismissed in the past when speaking up

Be on the lookout for the reasons a person is not engaging in a conversation. In the workplace, being vigilant in this way can help managers and colleagues to find the root cause for disengagement and forge solutions to encourage an inclusive environment.

Appropriate times to use passive listening

On the whole, passive listening isn't a good thing, especially at work, as it can cause many issues. But there are a few rare occasions where it could be acceptable to be less engaged. 

One example could be on a remote all-hands or town hall-style call which involves a significant amount of people from the company. We're talking 50 or more attendees. It's likely that only a small part will be relevant to your team or department, so you may have just one ear on the rest of the conversation.

Disadvantages of passive listening

As you can imagine, there are several disadvantages of passive listening which can cause significant drawbacks across all areas of the organisation. 


Misunderstandings and miscommunication are arguably the number one disadvantage that can lead to many issues. If a passive listener misses crucial details, or hasn't grasped the context, they aren't going to follow through on the next steps appropriately, which can derail projects and cause errors.

Missed opportunities

In the same vein, not paying attention can lead to missed opportunities. A passive listener may not ask any clarifying questions, because they weren't paying attention, and wasted the opportunity to offer a great suggestion or idea. 

Weakened relationships

Let's face it, if someone isn't listening to you properly and doesn't contribute as they should, they've broken your trust. And it takes a lot to rebuild trust. Some may even say it's impossible. Passive listening can affect your reputation at work and won't only break down a relationship with a speaker, but potentially with other colleagues too.

Reduced engagement

There's a term in psychology called “emotional contagion.” It refers to a process where states, feelings, or ideas are transferred between people cognitively. If there's a passive listener in a group and they are physically disengaged, this behaviour can rub off on colleagues and cause them to distance themselves too. This can hinder the success of a conversation and therefore a project.

Sub-optimal solutions

In all good workplaces, people are encouraged to find creative solutions and put forward innovative ideas. However, if a passive listener has not engaged, and therefore not understood the brief, the output of a collaborative session will be sub-par.

How to improve your listening skills

Job descriptions will often require a professional who has strong communication skills, and listening is a core part of that skill set. If you're looking to improve your active listening abilities, here are a few techniques you can try:

Be present and pay attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge what they are saying. Remember, your non-verbal communication can do a lot of the “talking” here. Make sure you:

  • Note the speaker's body language

  • Look at the speaker directly and maintain eye contact

  • Push distracting thoughts and environmental factors aside

  • Don't think about what you're going to say next

  • Concentrate on the conversation word-for-word

Notice the non-verbal cues

All great listeners notice what is being said and what is not being said. Learn how to read the physical cues of who is speaking, such as their facial expressions or their tone of voice, to get a sense of what they mean. Also use your body language to show that you're engaged, such as:

  • Smiling and using other facial expressions

  • Maintaining an open and inviting posture

  • Using small verbal comments like “yes,” “uh huh,” and “I understand”

  • Nodding occasionally

Don't interrupt

Interrupting a speaker can make them feel like you aren't listening, and that what they have to say isn't worth saying. Ultimately, it may make them feel dejected and will limit your understanding of what they have to say. Remember to:

  • Allow the speaker to finish before responding

  • Avoid interrupting and playing devil's advocate

  • Understand that some people want to be heard and aren't looking for advice

Seek clarification

According to author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, “Listening is not understanding the words of the question asked, listening is understanding why the question was asked in the first place.” 

If you can't be certain that what you heard the other person say is what they meant, it's okay to seek clarification and confirm if what you heard is accurate. In doing so, you create a sense of trust, as you indirectly let the speaker know that you genuinely care about what they are saying.

While there are times that passive listening may be excusable, it's not the best form of communication. Instead, look to harness your active listening skills, which all employers value. If you need a hand showcasing your strong communication skill set on your CV, tap into the expertise of our CV writers and send your CV for a free review today.

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