Listening vs. hearing – what’s the difference and which is more important?

LIstening vs. hearing - White Men Can't Jump

While listening and hearing may seem similar, they are very different. And maybe in a way you may not expect.

You might hear in the background a song on the radio, a show on TV, or a friend speaking, and may not be actively listening. You should always listen to your friends, BTW.

By this definition, listening requires more attention and cognizance.

That’s true, but let’s take it a step further.

In the classic movie White Men Can’t Jump, Wesley Snipes says to Woody Harrelson, “There’s a difference between hearing and listening. White people, you can’t hear Jimi (Hendrix)!”

You can listen to someone, but it takes that much more attention, thought, and empathy to really hear someone.

That’s what Wesley Snipes was saying – that white people couldn’t understand where Jimi was coming from.

So while hearing does come before listening, it also comes after.

Hearing equals understanding and empathizing with what or whom you’re listening to.

In careers where you work with clients or sell to potential customers, you have to be a really good listener.

And when you hit the point where when you actually hear someone and understand them, it’s a beautiful thing. There’s this moment of clarity where you realize that you’re just on the same page with someone, and at that point you can deliver the most value.

Next time you’re listening to someone speak, or sing, or act, really try to hear them. I think the interaction will be much more valuable.

What do you think about the difference between listening and hearing?

I’d love to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments, tweet at me @mikewchan, or email me at

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Photo courtesy of YouTube

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