Guest Post: Aliel Cunningham

The Gift of Whole-Hearted Listening

I’m excited to share the final guest post in the series from my fellow hope*writers. Today, Aliel Cunningham shares some practical ways to give the gift of listening and connection to those around us. Read on:

PC: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

In Stephanie Kaza’s beautiful book, Conversations with Trees, she begins the prologue with these words: “When I first wrote these essays, I was pulled by a powerful call from the trees to listen, to hear their stories, to be in their presence.”

It is not only the trees that are calling out to us to deeply listen and be present without distraction. As humans, we are made for connection to one another and the only way we can become deeply connected is through the gift of deep listening and heart sharing. One of the greatest gifts we can give to each other in this fast-paced technological era of ever-shortening attention spans trained to focus on the split second tasks of checking boxes, scanning for information, and scrolling through posts is the sacred gift of whole-hearted attention.  

What do I mean by “whole-hearted”?  This phrase was made famous by Dr. Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection and it relates to the concept of living with your whole heart and bringing all of who you are to the table when you engage with others.  But the world around us does little to cultivate this habit in our hearts and engagement with others.  We have become experts at giving a sliver of our attention to those present around us and instead giving the majority of our restless attention to seeking out new videos, pictures, and news feeds produced worlds away from where we are living and breathing in this present moment.  

Without an intentional valuing of whole-hearted, authentic conversations to continue deepening our relationships, a thoughtlessness creeps in, a familiarity that breeds contempt, a carelessness that allows us to forget about our continual need to be “seen” anew as pilgrims who are ever on a journey.  

One rhythm I have been learning how to cultivate over the past several years is how to take time to be intentionally present with others without my cell phone or any other agenda to accomplish except to be present, to be interested and curious, to expect to be surprised – even by those I know well.

PC: Hari Marten/Unsplash

This kind of intentional rhythm in our relationships takes time to develop, but is so worthwhile when our friends or family members begin to open up in new ways because of our willingness to set aside time just to give them that irreplaceable gift of our whole-hearted attention which invites them to share their heart and be heard and receive your presence as a place where they can take shelter and feel the embrace of being valued in the eyes of another without having to say a word.

However, this kind of whole-hearted attention takes both practice and planning since most of us have been trained to multi-task and look past each other rather than truly engage and listen well to one another. Consider these small steps to plan intentional time this week:

1. Set aside a specified time to be together (whether it is a day trip, a coffee meeting, an evening together) so that there is a shared expectation for how long the time will be (1-2 hours vs. a day together).

2. Decide ahead of time on the main focus of the time together (catching up, sharing stories with each other, processing through a hard experience, cheering the other up after a hard day, deepening the friendship by asking questions of heart or belief, listening prayerfully). This is not always something you need to make explicit ahead of time, but it is good to think about ahead of time to be intentional in questions or comments throughout the conversation.

3. Consider ahead of time if there is something specific you want to leave with them or do with them before you wrap up your time together (such as pray with them, bring a gift or book to encourage them, write a short letter or note with a scripture, suggest a podcast or audio-book, set a date for the next intentional time together, etc).  These are also things you can do to follow up on your time together – especially if you want to follow up on a specific theme or need that was brought up during your time together. This intentional time is an intensive investment of time and focus and presence, so it is important to prayerfully consider who God would have you start investing this kind of quality time together with.  

Establishing this kind of rhythm in a relationship usually requires several occasions to meet together to establish a lasting presence and influence in that person’s life.  Likely, this will not happen with every relationship in our lives.

Once you have a few key people in mind to begin this practice with, the different forms of engagement with one another is only limited by your creativity. This kind of intentional rhythm in relationships can be alternated in many different ways.

• A coffee date in which you meet together at a cafe and share an hour or two over coffee or tea is always good for both casual catch-up meetings and occasionally for deeper conversations since they are in a public sphere, but also have a level of privacy.

• A walk in the park or hike in the woods may be a better place for more personal time together – especially if you are processing through a hard conversation or painful experience.

• A dessert night may be a good venue for celebratory occasions or getting to know someone more intentionally.

• A museum or art exhibit is great place for more quiet, introspective times when simply sharing an experience together may give you a bond that allows you to meet afterwards and talk about what stood out to you or what did you both really enjoy or take away from the experience.

• A shared home-cooked meal is one of the most intimate experiences of time together. This option requires flexibility and vulnerability, but is a very simple way to say, “I value your presence in my home” or if you are going to their home you can say with your presence, “I value you enough to come and be present in the midst of your life in your own home.”

PC: Ibrahim/Unsplash

Because of distance or other safety concerns, you may not always be able to meet together in person.  Some alterations to this practice can also take the form of:

• Writing letters (yes! this may sounds old-fashioned and out of date, but the handwritten word on a card or in a letter is a profound way to let someone know that they are being personally thought of.  It is also a way to engage in topics or themes that might not come up naturally in conversation.)

• Zoom Lunch (Setting a date to share lunch together over Zoom and have a specific question, podcast series, book or topic to discuss)

• Reading aloud together (Reading aloud is a special way to break the ice with someone you or just getting used to the idea of spending intentional time together or it can also be a great way for deepening bonds with someone who is close to you. Sharing stories is not something that is just for kids, it also satisfies a deep human need to connect through shared experiences.

• Short Messages (Sending a short text or scripture to them of encouragement and letting them know that you appreciate their presence in your life (I also like to send audio messages if possible. This allows the other person to hear my voice inflections which carries both the uniqueness of our presence and communicates our message in more textured layers than simple words in a text – this too is a quick way to let them know I am thinking of them in an intentional and personal way). The Scriptures say that it is more blessed to give than to receive and I have found that to be very true in this case.  When we choose to spend intentional time with others, not only can we see God using these times to make a deep impact on the lives of others, but also we will find blessing in return. I hope you will want to continue this practice in more and more of your relationships.

Stephanie Kaza expressed this desire to continue these times of intentional times of listening saying, “As in most good conversations, there is the desire for more contact, more time together, and more depth.”  

Simply by sharing the love of God (who always gives us His undivided attention) through our whole-hearted presence, we begin to experience for ourselves as we communicate to others the life-giving messages we all need to hear: “You are valuable. You are seen. You are received as a God-created gift with a unique, purpose, presence and story in the world. You are not alone in the journey. I am here with you. You are loved.”

Aliel Cunningham is a professor who has experience in teacher development and in cultivating cross-cultural discussions in educational contexts both in the United States and abroad. She is also a writer interested in promoting habits of listening for wisdom in our relationships with time, one another, and Truth.  Her home website is called “Listening Heart Ministries“.

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