When you want someone to fully understand the emotion or message you want to communicate, would you rather the person you’re speaking to say, “I can hear you” or “I’m listening”?

At first, it may not seem like there’s a difference. “Hearing” and “listening” may appear synonymous and, therefore, can be used interchangeably. However, the two words are not only different by definition but play distinct roles in communication. Here’s how hearing and listening are different and how they impact mental health.


The five human senses are the faculties of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. By definition, hearing is our sense of sound or our power to take in sound through our ears. Therefore, hearing is a physical ability or a physiological process – one that we do naturally or involuntarily.

Hearing a sound that is within earshot requires minimal to no effort. We also have no ability to block out sounds at will. The only time we may not hear sounds clearly, such as the contents of a conversation, is when we are distracted by something else, including other noise. Even then, the sounds still make it to our ears, but our brains simply did not process the words and their meaning.


If hearing is the physical process of perceiving sound, listening requires thoughtful attention to the sound and giving it consideration. You can hear what a person is saying to you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are listening and genuinely understanding what they’re saying. Listening takes effort. When we listen, we are alert, attentive, and ready to respond to what we hear.

Listening increases our emotional awareness. It is crucial to mental health. Listening helps us connect by understanding and empathizing with others’ experiences. Listening allows us to engage on an emotional level.

Listening can be further broken down -you can be an active listener or a passive listener. As an active listener, you listen to understand the message so that you can contribute an opinion or a solution. An active listener may react with non-verbal cues such as making eye contact or nodding. On the other hand, a passive listener is more closely related to hearing. Passive listening is listening without responding, reacting, or participating in two-way communication. Some examples of passive listening include listening to music, a presentation, or the news.

Hearing is a physical activity. Listening is a communication skill. However, both hearing and listening are essential to mental health. We can’t actively listen if we can’t hear. When building strong relationships, which boosts our mental health, we must learn the value of listening and being listened to. We don’t just want our words to be heard, but we want our message to be communicated. By actively listening, we can help resolve conflicts and establish social connections.

Should you have a mental health emergency, please call 911, go to your nearest emergency room, or call 1-866-837-7521 to be connected to Communicare’s mobile crisis team, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.