I recently sat with a group of people who live in an assisted living. The small group had gathered for a Christmas tree-trimming party, but as we sipped hot cocoa and snacked on cookies, we migrated to sofas and talked for over an hour about anything and everything. I peppered the conversation with questions about their likes, dislikes, daily activities and more. They felt relaxed enough in this cozy environment to talk about favorite hobbies and air a few grievances. We didn’t change the world that evening, but I made some wonderful new friends. This happened because I offered these men and women a part in the conversation. Participating in this relational activity, under the guise of holiday festivities, gave each person the opportunity to be heard. And isn’t that what we all desire?
Several years ago, I was driving around the Ozark Mountains on a gorgeous fall day. I had coffee and music and no particular place to be. I saw a woman wandering down a busy street. The sun glinted off her silver spangled miniskirt, and when she stopped in an empty parking lot to gather her thoughts, I pulled in and offered her a ride. She climbed in next to me, bewildered, hungry and broke. It took me almost ten minutes to discover her name, and she was so skittish I feared she would jump out of the car.
I listened intently as she rambled, and we pulled into McDonald’s. As we sat in a corner booth, she talked and ate, and I listened some more. I asked a few questions, and she answered some of them truthfully. A few of her answers were wildly implausible, but I let her tell her story, her way. She had been a Gospel singer at one time, but circumstances changed, and she was doing what she had to do to get by. It seemed like an exhausting life, and I wanted to gather her up, take her home with me and allow her to breathe for five minutes (or five days) without worrying about where she would sleep that night.
Instead, I took her where she wanted to go: back to her extended-stay motel room on the glitzy Branson strip. As we said our goodbyes, and I could see that, although she still seemed unsettled, there was a satisfaction of sorts in her expression. I never saw her again; she moved on quickly, like so many other people in that particular part of the world. But for two hours, she got to say her piece. I fed her (albeit it cheap fast food) and listened without passing judgment. She and I connected relationally that day in the Ozarks, and we both walked away from the encounter better off than when we met.
For a few moments, she had a place at the table, a part in the conversation, a safe place to be her authentic self. I’m not a hugger, really, like some people. I’m not a grand gestures person. I’m a collector of experiences, and I will never forget my afternoon with this remarkable woman. I believe I made a difference in her life because I gave her the space to let go of everything weighing her down, for a few precious minutes. In return, I got the pleasure of meeting a person who, although troubled, had such a beautiful spirit and a terrific singing voice. How can you beat that?
My teen is a talker. Relational is his middle name. He is obsessed with cars, mechanical engineering and YouTube. As a mama, I have spent countless hours listening patiently as the teen explains internal combustion to me. He converses for hours about Elon Musk’s business savvy. And every now and then, he gets vulnerable, sharing his hopes and dreams. Those are the moments I live for.
His older brother is the same. I’ve spent literal years of my life listening as the adult kid discusses politics and why everyone should learn Latin. Sometimes I get a glimpse, albeit it brief, of the adult kid’s soul, and I am in awe of what I see. These lovely moments, when people risk everything to open up about themselves, are achieved when we offer space to be authentic. Nothing pleases me more than good conversation, deep talk, with interesting, diverse people.
We all have stories to tell. Our voices yearn to be heard. There are classes, books and probably apps to teach us how to live authentically. I’m all for having those things in our relational tool kits. People who work as counselors or in the field of coaching know how vital it is to give people space to be real and vulnerable. I’m obviously not the first person to publicize this concept, nor will I be the last.
I am, however, an unabashed advocate for offering everyone a place at the table and a place in the conversation. I don’t do this on a large, public, international scale. I certainly don’t get paid to facilitate these kinds of activities. Rather, I go about my day and keep my eyes open for opportunities to engage the people around me, right where they are. Assisted living residents. People down on their luck a bit. My kids. Maybe you’re walking around, talking to people and loving those relational conversations as much as I do. Well done, you! Keep chugging along!
Helping people feel valued isn’t complicated. All that’s required is an interest in visiting with people. No, really. Pick a person, or group of people, and let them talk. Ask questions, be authentic, don’t judge what’s being shared. Hug it out, if you’re so inclined. Stay in touch or follow up, if you can. Offer people a space to have their voices heard, and I guarantee beautiful things will happen.
Lives can be transformed by a single conversation. Or a shared meal. By listening and responding. By caring enough to wade through the (sometimes) tough stuff to get to what’s real. Today is a good day to engage someone new in conversation, to listen and to extend a jumping off point for people yearning for authenticity. The benefits for you, the facilitator of all this relational living? Life-changing. Mood-enhancing. Magical.