Today, I remembered to Listen! Before it got too hot, I took a brisk walk around a local pond and then up a hill. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to anything at first, but then I focused on the natural symphony all around me. I noticed the sound of ducks splashing in the water, the whirl of insect swarms near patches of blackberries, the crunch of dried grass under my feet, and the rapid tapping of a woodpecker near an oak grove.
To enjoy all that was around me, I had to intentionally focus outward so that I could process what my ears could hear. This morning, I not only benefitted from a healthy walk, but I also got the added benefit of a little appreciative listening (or listening for enjoyment). When I got back home, I felt uplifted.
As each of us gets older, I believe our ability to listen in a variety of ways can help us live our best lives. Appreciative listening, listening for information, critical listening, and supportive listening are different types of listening that require different behaviors or skills beyond simply hearing.
Listening and Hearing are Not the Same
In one of my previous lives, I taught listening courses for several years. When I first started teaching listening at Marylhurst University in the 1990s, people asked me how in the world I could spend an entire term teaching something as easy as listening. I wasn’t surprised by the question because most people think of listening as a passive activity that primarily involves hearing. It is true that our ability to hear is an important part of listening, but hearing alone is not listening. Nonetheless, as we get older, we do need to make sure that we can hear sufficiently to fully enjoy our lives.
Types of Listening
Appreciative listening—simply enjoying music or sounds around us does require that we can hear and does take a certain amount of focus. We have to ‘tune in’ to take in certain sounds, assuming poor hearing doesn’t prevent us from doing so. Appreciative listening can help reduce our stress levels and lift our mood.
Listening for information goes beyond hearing and focusing on what is said. It requires mindful engagement. When we recently purchased a new car, we needed some basic information before we could even drive the car off the lot. Getting the basic information we needed required asking questions, clarifying what we thought we heard, and then confirming that we understood what the salesperson told us. We also had to confirm what he meant when he used some technical terms. As an older adult, learning about technical upgrades and advances has required a lot of active listening and engagement.
Evaluative or “critical” listening involves examining reasoning, logic, fallacies of logic, source credibility, emotional appeals, and so forth. This type of listening requires not only knowledge but a lot of effort. Generally, we are in the “truth-seeking” mode when listening critically. As older adults, I believe our ability to listen critically is essential when examining sales pitches that sound incredible or when listening to candidates make appeals to us for votes. Critical listening can also involve what we observe as well including nonverbal behaviors, attire, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth.
Last year we purchased a home security system. We had some recent break-ins in our neighborhood and were easy targets for a salesperson who canvased our neighborhood. While we did ask some appropriate questions, we did not ask some important questions about service, should the system not work right. Had we done our homework, we could have saved ourselves at least a lot of time and frustration.
Supportive or Empathic Listening:
In any kind of relationship, supportive listening is essential. This type of listening focuses primarily on the feelings of others. Women in particular tend to value this type of listening more than do men. Nonetheless, it is important for all of us to be aware of when this type of listening is needed. Our significant others, our friends, or our grandchildren may look to us as the person who supports and understands them in a way that is nonintrusive and positive.
Supportive listeners usually do not offer advice unless requested. Supportive listeners also do not judge. Instead, we listen by observing the emotional tone of the other person and their nonverbal behaviors. We might offer a comment like, “I noticed that you have been pretty quiet today. Is there something going on?” Or, we might say something like, “That sounds really frustrating. What do you think you would like to do about it?”
I believe our maturity as older adults helps us be better listeners. Good listening could be one of our superpowers as we age.