Home > Social Business, Social CRM, technology > Social Hearing Versus Social Listening, There is a Difference

Social Hearing Versus Social Listening, There is a Difference

I am torn between two topics this weekend – one is the subject line above, the second is is the fun topic of “Creepful”; the awkward combination of being insightful and sharing so much information with the person you are speaking with that they believe it is actually creepy. I will come back to that one, and post it over at CRMOutsiders, as a follow-up to Martin’s great start to the conversation.

Are you Listening, or just Hearing?

I am hopeful that most of you who are reading this post realize that there is a difference between hearing and listening. It is possible that it is one of those topics that you do not think too much about, but now that I am bringing it up, it makes sense. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of hearing is “the faculty of perceiving sounds” whereas listening is to “take notice of and act on what someone says.”  So, hearing is the physical part, but listening is a cognitive or conscious response to what has been heard. Said simplistically, for those of you with kids, we know they heard you, the question really is did they listen to what you said. In the age of the Social Web, I will suggest that hearing be extended beyond just sound to include what is ‘said’ via the written word, on both standard (mail, email, fax) and Social channels (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs).

The mirror image to the listening versus hearing discussion is the open versus transparent discussion. I made my feelings pretty clear on that topic, Transparency is a Characteristic, not a Goal. In this post, I suggest that transparency is the ability to witness with an unobstructed view. Suggesting further that these organizational characteristics will lead to an increased level of trust, or the ability for people unfamiliar with you, or your organization to build trust more quickly. To me, transparency is a little bit like hearing (but a little more sophisticated), it is important, it needs to happen, but in isolation, it will only take you so far. So, what is the listening equivalent? Being open. Open is transparency plus participation, which leads to trust and value creation.

How do these pieces fit together?

There are hundreds of Tweets and Blogs, presented by ‘experts’ where listening is ‘strongly recommended’ as the starting point. While I agree that listening is important, I fear that what is actually happening is not really listening at all. If you do not plan to take any actions based on what you hear, are you really listening? Does Social Media monitoring really start with listening? You could say that all I am doing is playing a game of semantics, and you might be right (but, I would disagree with you). In the world that Social Media, is there such a thing as ‘Social Hearing’? Yes, it is called Social Media Monitoring. That said, monitoring and hearing are pointless if you do not plan on doing anything about what you find. What is really needed is Social Media Listening. There, I said it – but I am not going to suggest another TLA. What I am going to suggest is that if you plan to monitor, then prove to people that you are listening, not just hearing.

There are two ways to prove that you are listening. One way is transparency, allowing people to see inside the organization where they can witness what you are doing. The second, more interesting way to prove that you are listening is to be open. As I have stated previously “Open suggests that I can not only see through the window, but I can walk through the front door and participate.” I am not suggesting either that this conversation is over, I am suggesting that you need to make sure that you are doing more than just hearing, and that in order to do that, you might need to be more than just transparent.  Happy Sunday – please do let me know if I have missed something big (or even little).

  1. raybrown99
    July 18, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Hi Mitch Listening has been dear to my heart for many years. I see it as a key management skill that is rarely taught and who’s impact is poorly understood. In the past I have recruited business coaches and I would reject 9 out of 10 candidates on the basis of poor listening skills. Listening is one of those “oh that” skills, people know the word but, as you say in your post, rarely understand the process or the value. The key in true listening is to shut off your “story” at least temporarily. You know if someone is truly listening in a conversation when they ask a question and then use the answer as an intro to another of their “stories.” The good listener will typically ask a supplementary question to gain more understanding. So it will be with Social Media Listening. True listening will only be valuable if it’s followed up by some interaction or response. What stops us listening, now there’s a whole other topic !

    • Mitch Lieberman
      July 19, 2010 at 8:49 am


      Thanks for the thoughts, they are appreciated. Your dscription makes it sound a little bit like logic “a skill that is rarely taught”, though the impact of logic seems to be understood a bit better. I agree wholeheartedly that the end game is interaction and/or a response. I also believe that ‘Social’ is contextual (industry, culture, generation) and that companies need to learn. The unfortunate answer to that seems to be “listen”, but not the way I am dscribing, or even the way you are describing.

      The advice too oft given is really ‘watch’ and ‘hear’ but do not participate yet. In the early stages, showing somehow that you are listening ‘taking notice and acting on what someone said is a critical step. Like your example (nice one at that) even if you are not ready to actively engage in every comment, showing some form of ‘active social media listening’ is important. The exact form of that is an important conversation.

  2. July 19, 2010 at 2:42 am


    Good post, but I can’t help feeling you are leaving the topic right at the start. The issue is not purely hearing vs listening, although there is something to, but as Ray says above, doing something.

    Listening without doing is the same as hearing. Just because you understand does not mean you are going to use what you understood. And therein lies the key to hearing and listening – it is not about understanding or doing something with what you understood (although that is a good first step), but it is where learning comes in — and the real value begins to be discovered.

    Learning, the action of understanding and applying the lessons, is what makes a business committed to the process of changing, and doing better by the customer. When you learn you are actually setting the same action into “auto pilot” almost, where you know it will be repeated.

    The key is to make that leap, to go from listening to cementing the lessons learned and implement them. Until then, I really don’t think it makes a difference whether the business listens or hears, as nothing will have changed.

    What do you think?

    • Mitch Lieberman
      July 19, 2010 at 8:53 am


      Thanks for the comment. I do believe the topic at the start, so I am starting the conversation. I agree with your thoughts, and that is part of my point. While it may seem like semantics, people are saying ‘we are listening’ but there is no action, thus no distinction from ‘hearing’.

      Even as businesses are first learning, they need to be active social listeners. Show your customers, prospects, partners, suppliers that you care. And I hope we all know I do not mean “thanks for your comment”. I mean actions, or plans for actions.

      Your direction is good, my fear is that many businesses are still much earlier on in the process than we would all like, or even expect.

  3. Marcel
    July 19, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Mitch,

    I think the distinction you are making is an important one. Consider the goal of listening in personal relationships between friends: do we set out to mainly gather information or do we see it as an important part of building a relationship? We fall short of the goal, in my opinion, if we approach listening as primarily information gathering.

    I wrote about this in a post a few months ago, “The Practice of Conversational Listening” (no, not trying to invent new words, just my way of clearly making the distinction).

    “Most people perceive someone who listens as someone who cares. This type of listening has to be visibly demonstrated; it is not passive or unidirectional. It is two-way listening. Message reception is not enough; the listener must respond.”

    And, yes, many businesses are not there yet. In my experience, starting with passive listening is certainly better than ignoring the conversations, and it does generally compel a business to respond. The message of your post is very important and I think we need to keep clarifying and defining what true listening is, certainly more than “hearing”. Great stuff.

    Marcel LeBrun
    CEO, Radian6

    ps. the post I referenced is:

  4. Mitch Lieberman
    July 30, 2010 at 8:20 am


    Thanks for the comment, very much appreciated. A bit of an apology, I was not ‘listening’ well enough to (the emails from) my own blog, thus the embarrassing delay in this response.

    I visited your piece and enjoyed it very much, thanks for sharing it. I am actually getting ready to write my next piece, which is the polar opposite. What to do with the people (customers; past present and future) who are not saying anything.

    I read your response here, then went and looked at your post, and I ended up at the exact same quote you have above. That is a great description. You are spot on as well, with many businesses not being there. The natural question to me; are the people there? As we all know too well, there are people behind the keyboard, on the other end of the phone – are they prepared to respond, to truly listen?

    Thanks again!

  5. samford
    March 21, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Love it, Mitch, and appreciated your flagging it for my attention re: my recent Fast Company piece. I am always excited to find someone who is, serendipitously, thinking along the same lines I’ve been. I looked at when you originally wrote this post, and I found it was back in 2010…which was ironically around the same time I first started thinking about this subject, as I was in earlier stages of this Spreadable Media book project I’ve been working on with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green (http://www.henryjenkins.org/). Here’s a piece on some of my 2010 thinking on the subject, based on a talk I had given at WOMMA in May 2010 (http://pepperdigitalblog.com/?p=121). Regarding the conversation that had happened here…I think there’s a distinction between hearing and listening, first, and also an expectation that the active processes of listening need to drive to some action afterward…In any case, thanks for bringing to my attention.

  1. July 18, 2010 at 11:01 am
  2. July 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm
  3. July 30, 2010 at 10:24 am
  4. October 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm
  5. January 22, 2012 at 10:58 am
  6. January 22, 2012 at 11:06 am

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