Whether I’m expressing joy over an eventful day, or frustration over life’s overwhelming responsibilities, my mother has always been one of the greatest active listeners in my life. Something about her motherly demeanor and caring personality have always led me to seek her thoughtful advice and welcoming comfort.
Unlike action-oriented listeners (like some of my friends), my mom is a people-oriented listener, checking off all the boxes in the five-step process known as listening. For instance, as I’m telling her about how frustrating finals week is getting over the phone, she receives the thoughts I’m expressing to her and attends to them based on the salience of my tone of voice. Simultaneously, she is understanding what I’m telling her, comparing this experience to previous semesters and how I’ve reacted to those experiences. As I continue sharing my thoughts and concerns, she periodically responds by giving verbal feedback like “uh-huh” or “yeah” as she deems appropriate. In person, she also gives off back-channel cues like nodding and occasional comments to ensure to me that she’s listening attentively. And after I’ve finally finished voicing my thoughts, she recalls them and offers me comfort and advice regarding the situation if necessary.
As the book states, we must adapt our listening purposes to the changing demands of interpersonal encounters. In other words, we must adapt aspects of our listening, such as our listening purpose, based on the content of the conversation. If I tell my mom that I didn’t get an internship I applied for, for example, she wouldn’t listen to analyze or discern, but instead she listens to comprehend and to support. She comprehends how the rejection has affected me and expresses empathy towards those feelings. Similarly, if I successfully land an internship, she notices my excitement and supports me by congratulating me.
Day in and day out, we interact with all types of listeners. Some may be great listeners, others might be absolutely terrible. But when we find someone who is a genuine listener that checks off all the boxes and makes you feel important and cared for, we should cherish that person and the relationship we share with them.