In this world of multitasking and undeniable deadlines, it is almost impossible to hold a strong conversation without distractions. I find myself doing homework, writing essays, even sometimes at the office with music or musicals or TV shows playing in the background. Something for me to listen to, but something that I don't have to 100% invest in.
I have been lucky enough in my life to often be the person that people come to confide in: at work, at parties, at school. I've listened to a lot of stories, learned a lot about people and perspective, and let myself become a part of all of it. Perhaps I've been chosen because I choose not to tell the things I've learned, but I like to think it's because people know that I'm really hearing them.
There is a difference.
Listening is a surface distraction--often it's passive or directed by someone else ("LISTEN TO ME!"), a noise/conversation/sentence that you hear and may recollect if there's something that catches your attention. I know someone who has the lucky talent of always being able to catch the last few words of your sentence, even if he hasn't been mentally present during the whole conversation (a trick that came in handy during high school). While it's a neat trick, it's also infuriating. When someone can do that, how do you know that they're really hearing you?
Hearing someone is a conscious choice: making sure that you're really paying attention to what it is they're saying (and sometimes realizing what it is that they're not saying). Putting down the iPhone (better yet, putting it away), closing the laptop, stepping away from the distraction and putting your focus on the person in question. It means not having to say "What?" and asking for a repetition.
Most of the time when I'm having serious conversations, I've trained myself to say "So, what I hear you saying is..." in order to make sure I fully comprehend the discussion in question. It's to make sure that I'm not just listening passively, but making a conscious determination to be an active part of the conversation. It also means that I'm not concentrating fully on what it is that I have to say (or what I'm going to say next).
I think perhaps that's why Sh'ma is so powerful. It's not asking you to listen. It's telling you to hear, to make a conscious decision to be an active part of the process. I always sign the prayer, finding it peaceful that I do my part for those who can't hear--in a prayer that demands you to. But in signing, I still make myself an active part of the conversation during t'filah. I hear, I take it in, and I react accordingly. But I'm so much more aware than when I just listen.