Active Listening Versus Hostile Listening

By Rachel Puryear

If you have ever explored topics such as personal development, learning relationship skills, mediation, or interpersonal communication exercises; you have likely heard of “active listening” at some point. Active listening is a set of skills designed to help one become a better listener.

The ‘active’ part of listening involves focusing on what someone else is saying and reflecting back what you heard from them, in order to ensure that you understood them. Active listening can help people better understand and communicate with each other, and thereby deepen interpersonal relationships.

Two people sitting on a park bench, facing away, talking and listening to one another.

There is also such a thing as hostile listening. When people engage in hostile listening, it’s not that they aren’t listening to what others are saying. Indeed, they are pay close attention – but rather than paying close attention with the motivation to better understand and empathize with another person, they are listening for self-involved purposes.

At best, hostile listeners are just waiting for their turn to talk. They are paying attention to what is being said, while formulating their response to each point. Their focus is on refuting each statement with their own counter, rather than what is going on with the other person.

Worse yet, the hostile listener is noting each point a speaker makes, so that the hostile listener can tear it down, and also make personal attacks against the speaker.

People often engage in hostile listening when they feel threatened and have a vested personal interest in their own viewpoint, or when they have naturally combative personalities, or both. Even though some people are more prone to it than others, we have all done it at some point.

Can hostile listening ever be justified? Yes, maybe under some circumstances – such as when dealing with very toxic people, or in asserting oneself against someone who is behaving in an abusive or destructive manner. There is a time and a place for it, and it’s unrealistic to think that there isn’t.

For that matter, critical thinking is also an important life skill, including in the context of peer reviewing scientific studies. But that certainly does not need to involve personal attacks.

When it comes to deepening interpersonal relationships and better understanding the people we love, however, hostile listening is much more counterproductive than helpful. We will not reach a better understanding of other people if we are mainly focused on how we are going to tear down each point they make.

Listening for the purposes of closeness and understanding come from trying to understand and empathize with what others are saying, not just focusing on our own responses to them.


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to better listening. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you do not do so already. xoxo

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