Hearing, Listening, and Understanding

communication with hearing loss
Wayne Staab
January 9, 2012

During counseling with a patient the other day I was asked to explain briefly the difference between hearing, listening, and understanding.  The request was, “Make it easy and simple for me so when I talk to my family I can educate them about the differences, how these terms relate to my hearing loss and how these should be interpreted by me and my family and friends now that I wear hearing aids.”  

The request was somewhat related to her sensorineural hearing loss expectations, but even more to her desire to be able to identify the differences when interacting with others.  I found this to be an interesting insight into the rehabilitation process by the patient and something we, as professionals understand, but often may not explain properly, or might not even talk about during counseling.  


What is frustrating to the hearing aid user and family/friends, is the fact that if hearing aids were purchased to manage the hearing loss, why can’t the user now be able to hear, listen, and understand everything?  After all, don’t they all mean the same?  


As a result of the patient’s request, I put together the following short explanation of the differences in a way that I thought might be helpful to her, and maybe to others as well.  This follows.


Communication with Hearing Loss: Hearing, Listening, and Understanding


HearingDepends on physical condition of ears
✔ Ears are “open” 24 hours a day
  • Can “hear” sounds (traffic, water running, voices in background, etc.) but not “listen” to them
✔ Physical condition of ear can change in a number of ways, depending on the degree and type of physical damage
  • All sounds may be too soft
  • Only some will be too soft
  • Some may be too loud
✔ Can’t turn on and off when we want


Listening involves more than just physical condition of the ear
✔ Implies one is paying attention to what is heard
✔ Can turn on and off when want
  • All sounds may be too soft
  • Only some will be too soft
  • Some may be too loud
✔ Can have excellent hearing (physical), and not listen
  • With a loss, listening requires greater attention and more effort



Understanding (recognition) combines hearing and listening
Implies taking of proper action by comprehending what was heard
  • Example:  Foreign language – You may listen attentively, but may not be able to understand because it is not familiar
✔ One must learn what “new” sounds are and accept them before they will be understood

✔ Requirements:

  • Practice, time, and use of additional clues provided by the aids



*image courtesy wikimedia commons

  1. Thanks Wayne for these definitions. They will be helpful to explain why “louder (the default solution for ‘I can’t hear’) is not enough”.

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