September 24, 2020

Active vs Passive Listening

Whether you’re negotiating for a better price on lunch or a new car or a multi-million dollar deal at work, how you listen matters. Of all the life skills we develop from childhood, listening is actually one of the most overlooked and underappreciated...

Whether you’re negotiating for a better price on lunch or a new car or a multi-million dollar deal at work, how you listen matters. Of all the life skills we develop from childhood, listening is actually one of the most overlooked and underappreciated.

It’s also one of the most powerful. Why? Because, when you develop keen listening skills, you can move mountains. Often, you barely need to say a word, too.

There’s a monumental difference between active and passive listening, though. To fully understand and appreciate just how powerful the right type of listening can be in negotiations, we first need to recognize the two.

Passive listening

Most of our modern lives are wrapped up in passive listening. Little to no effort is made with passive listening. Whatever you’re listening to is just … there. It exists.

It’s part of passive activity. If you’re watching the news and sitting on the couch, that’s passive. You’re taking some information in, sure, but you’re not interrupting the anchor.

When passive listening is taking place, the listener rarely, if ever, interrupts the speaker. In most cases, a passive listener isn’t even going to nod or shake their head. They won’t raise an eyebrow or frown.

There is almost no genuine emotion involved in passive listening. And this is the level of listening most people go through in everyday life. Maybe your friend is yapping on the phone while you’re checking your social media accounts. Or you could be sending a message to another friend during a class lecture.

You could even be mindlessly surfing the TV channels while your spouse is pouring her heart out to you about her day.

That’s passive listening.

Active listening

Active listening is engaged listening. This is where you’re concentrating on the person talking. You’re giving them your full, undivided attention. With active listening, you remember what the person said. You follow their every word. It means something to you.

In active listening, you’ll be paying attention to not just their words, but their tone, body language, and even other tools they might use to bring their point across more clearly.

It’s also a two-way form of communication. You will be responding to the speaker’s words and context. This may include nodding, verbal agreement, and even asking questions.

An active listener actually has a responsibility in this form of communication. And it’s an important job for the speaker. By providing instant feedback and insight, the conversation can move down into a deeper level, bringing forth stronger connection and more mutual understanding.

This does not mean that active listening involves agreement on everything, or even some things. It merely points out that when a person is invested in active listening, they are part of the process. Part of the communication stream.

What is an effective listener?

In its most basic concept, an effective listener is someone who participates in the process. It’s a person who provides feedback to the speaker, who has a vested interest in the conversation.

By ‘vested interest,’ though, this doesn’t mean a person has to care about the topic being discussed to make it active. When you see a devastating news event being broadcast that impacts you personally, that doesn’t change it from passive to active listening.

You still can’t provide any value to the news reporter who’s on TV or the radio. When talking about having a vested interest, it means you care about the topic and are willing and able to offer feedback. Also, an effective listener is someone whose attention is fully devoted to the person speaking. This is perhaps the most critical factor of an effective listener.

In today’s society, there are seemingly endless distractions, usually right there on our phones. When you devote your full attention to the person speaking and concentrate one what they’re saying, they’ll know it because you’ll respond appropriately.

What are the keys to active listening?

You’ll discover there are many ways to be an active listener. Some of the most effective keys include:

· Being still (not fussing around or fidgeting constantly).

· Not interrupting when the other person is speaking (letting them finish what they’re saying, even if you don’t agree).

· Providing the other person time to respond (remaining silent for a time, realizing that it takes some people more time to process and think through a topic before they can respond).

· Seeking clarification (if you don’t understand something, as an active listener, you’ll ask at the appropriate time).

· Realizing that the other person may have strong emotions about what’s being discussed, and having empathy for that.

· Paraphrasing (when you repeat what the person told you in a different way, it not only shows that you are listening, but that you understand what they’re saying. Plus, if you misunderstood, then this gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify).

· Nodding (giving silent cues that you understand, agree, or ‘get the point’).

· Leaning forward (a person who leans back or slouches is a person showing disinterest, but leaning forward slightly is a sign of an engaged person).

What are the benefits that active listening provides to a negotiator?

When you’re in the midst of a negotiation and are actively listening, you can gain a number of benefits.

First, you will gather more information.

As an active listener, you will ask questions, retain more information that’s being given to you, and discern some valuable insights about the other person.

The person speaking will also feel more valued, and this has a tendency to break down some potential barriers, allowing them to be more open and forthcoming about what they want, desire, or are willing to give up within the negotiation (and they’ll tend to do this simply because they feel respected).

Second, it will help you avoid conflicts of opinion.

In a negotiation, it’s not always about being right. When you’re willing to set your opinions aside for the sake of the deal (so long as you’re not compromising integrity or violating important virtues), you’ll hold a position of power.

Not everyone will share the same opinions as everyone else. Unfortunately, and especially in our modern, politically charged environment, it’s easy to get offended. If you are an active listener, you’ll quickly see where there could be conflicts of opinion and, for those that don’t matter to the negotiation, be able to avoid engaging in those matters.

Third, it can help lead to better outcomes.

The best deals are those where both parties believe they ‘won.’ But how could that be? How can two people ‘win’ in a negotiation? Well, that’s precisely what should happen. It’s called compromise and when you are actively listening, you’ll discern what the other person views as a ‘win’ for them.

This will help you steer the negotiation in the right direction that you both feel you got what mattered to you. Not all negotiations are going to be successful, but as an active listener, you’ll discover more success than if you are only passively listening.

Fourth, it helps to build better relationships.

You may never deal with the person you’re negotiating with again in your life, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is moot. In fact, one of the most powerful marketing tools today is called ‘word of mouth.’ This is the process whereby someone recommends you or your products or services to others. That might be friends or family, coworkers, or even strangers they overhear discussing a topic that makes them think of you. When you are an active listener, the other person feels valued. That’s one of the critical components to building stronger relationships. And, when you build relationships, that’s always a powerful platform upon which to stand for your future.

Active vs Passive listening in negotiation

When it comes to the art of negotiation, any passive listener is putting themselves in the backseat of the process. They are willfully giving up power in that relationship. Active listening always brings power to the person partaking in it because they show respect and gain it in return. An active listener pays attention, notices the cues, and can better steer the topic where they want it to go.

Why is active listening better for negotiating than passive listening?

As noted, if you are merely passive listening during a negotiation, odds are you’re going to miss some vital information. The other person may have to repeat themselves. And they’ll notice. From that point, they’ll be more guarded, more frustrated, and certainly less willing to compromise their stance.

Is there a way to work in your active listening skills?

Absolutely. First, you want to remove every distraction from your presence during the negotiation. That includes turning off your phone, turning your back to any windows if you have a tendency to get easily distracted, and practice focusing on the other person.

If your thoughts wander at any point, wait for a pause in the conversation and ask them to explain what they just said again. It’s also useful to ask friends or family to help you practice. Lean forward slightly, make eye contact, and focus on remembering everything they tell you. As with any other skill, the more you practice, the better at it you’ll become.


In the art of negotiation, the right listening skills are powerful. Active listening will gain you better footing and a more potent platform from which to negotiate than passive listening. It will also help you build a reputation as someone who genuinely cares because, when you develop strong active listening skills, you won’t help but learn more about the people you’re dealing with. And, as a person who understands negotiations are about relationships, caring will be a natural byproduct of your active listening abilities.

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