People are often confused by the difference between listening and hearing. The simplest way to put it is that we hear with our ears and we listen with our brains. You can hear someone talking but you need to use your brain to focus on and comprehend what they are saying. If you’re simply waiting for the person to finish speaking or thinking about what you’re going to say when it’s your turn to speak, then your focus is not on listening and you are not really participating in the conversation.
In fiction this is a useful distinction. Detectives Inspectors who just want to pin everything on a convenient suspect are reluctant to listen the amateur sleuth who knows that the brand of whiskey found at the crime scene, was not available to the suspect. But the ghost writer who heard that his employer was worried about the “beginnings” of his memoir, finally listens to the actual word being used and knows that a secret code is embedded in the “beginnings” of the opening chapters.
Listening and hearing are especially important in non-fiction. Maybe you were interviewed for a newspaper article and got upset when the reporter misquoted you. When you do research for a project and it involves asking questions, were you more focused on your subject’s responses or were you just cherry picking a word or a phrase here and there?
A real life example of this happened to me the other day. I met someone for the first time and the subject of my writing came up. The person asked me what I wrote and for an example, I asked if they had ever read To Serve Man, by Damon Knight.
She told me she never had and I preceded to summarize it for her. Before I could finish speaking, she interrupted me by telling me that she wasn’t interested in aliens. So I stopped telling her about the story but I did sad, “It was adapted to one of the most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone.”
She interrupted me again and said, without looking at me as she was speaking, “I was living in Washington when the Twilight series came out. I don’t much like the Twilight series.”
Since you’re reading this and you weren’t there, you might think, “Well, she must have meant the Twilight Zone and maybe it wasn’t necessary for her to say the whole title.”
Except, faithful reader, I was listening to her mention of Washington. Washington being where the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer is set. She was clearly uninterested in what I had to say and chose to not only interrupt me but to demonstrate this lack of interest by only responding to the one word she heard.