On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
I sat curled up in bed this morning. I had a post on loneliness I was going to share on the blog but reading Spring Washam’s book, A Fierce Heart, in preparation for our podcast interview later today, I was moved by her storytelling and how important it is to listen to stories of calling. I welcome you to these intimate stories of others here at Sidewalk Talk and hope you feel their calling and let their stories inspire us all over the holidays. These leaders are all over the globe bringing love and connection to the street. Let their love shine bright in you and perhaps share the story of Sidewalk Talk listening with your family to ignite a new kind of conversation.
In absurd times, we need absurd amounts of love, - Brad Montague.
If you want to hear each of these leaders tell their stories, in their own words, head over to the #GivingTuesday page and scroll to the bottom for the audio and video clips of these leaders here and hear Heather, Esther, and Dr. Thangunna on the podcast. If this movement calls to you, invest your time, your heart, and consider helping us locate 100 monthly financial investors /donors to reach our #GivingTuesday goal on December 3. $20 per month will help us keep all 92 of our chapters and 7000 listeners creating the kinds of wellness for people, our politics, and our planet.
I volunteer for a global movement called Sidewalk Talk. We set up chairs in the streets and offer to listen to passers by. We don’t solve problems. We don’t give advice. We simply offer non-judgemental, empathic listening; the opportunity to sit with a stranger and be heard.
Newcastle is at 55°N latitude. We had one warm, sunny outing about 18 months ago but most of the time it’s freezing. We often take our chairs to a city centre square where the folk who have nowhere else to go hang out on park benches. There was a fatal stabbing in the same spot a couple of months ago.
Not exactly cosy. So why do I go back time and time again?
The answer, it seems, is not what I thought when I embarked on this…..
The Power of Listening in Coaching
I originally trained in a client-centred coaching approach, based on Carl Rogers’ principle that if we hold our clients in ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ they can largely solve their own problems. Later, I was deeply inspired by Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment and her concept of ‘generative attention.’ Personal experience with countless clients testified to these approaches; there is a profoundly simple power in listening to bring about change.
For several years, though, I had a growing sense that my work wasn’t REALLY making a difference in the world. It started as a mild sense of unease, maybe even distaste at the ‘privilege’ of the sphere I was working in. Every client that actually makes it to coaching (or indeed any listening service) has overcome huge social, psychological and financial barriers. How many thousands or even millions were there for whom these barriers were simply insurmountable?
Then one day in 2017 Sidewalk Talk appeared in my social media feed. I watched a TED-style talk by the amazing founder, Traci Ruble. I was gripped. Maybe Sidewalk Talk was the thing I was looking for – a chance to give something back.
Observing reactions to global events added to my restlessness. I often found myself thinking about the universal human pain that lies behind every act of greed, blame, hatred and violence. Whether in our homes, workplaces, political systems or street gangs are we not all just hurting human beings trying to protect ourselves? Even our economy, based on growth, fuels a striving for more. We fill the gaping holes in our hearts with perceived success, wealth, and more stuff. What would it be like to live in a world where we were OK as we were? Maybe if there was more listening without judgement we could lessen some of the pain? Maybe I could contribute to positive change in the world by bringing Sidewalk Talk to Newcastle….
So, I threw myself into it with altruistic intent. I would ‘do good’ in the world.
What I wasn’t anticipating, though, was the ‘good’ the world would do in me…
Getting BackHaving done about 25 of these outings now, I’ve come to recognise a repeating pattern in the effect they have on me. In the hours leading up to an event I feel a mounting sense of apprehension. I’ve created stories to explain this away – mostly about how many pulls there are on my time and if I was being kind to myself I’d stop taking things like this on. Then, as I’m arriving and we’re setting up our chairs, the stories morph into fears of judgement and rejection – the other volunteers probably think I’m a flaky event organiser; nobody is going to want to sit down with me; what we’re doing is crazy.
Then we start. And this amazing thing happens.
As I reach out to passing strangers; as I practice genuine acceptance when people give us a wide berth or turn our offer down; as I sit with someone who hasn’t washed for weeks and battle with a rising physical repulsion to the odour; as I listen with curiosity to someone who passionately shares opinions with which I strongly disagree, I start to soften towards myself. As I practice holding non-judgemental space and accepting the human being in front of me, they give the same back to me. In the act of listening I also feel heard. I am not judged. I am OK.
I return home exhilarated.
The magic of human-human connectionIt is a deeply humbling experience to connect with a stranger in this way. I am blown away by the beauty, pain, humour, vulnerability, creativity, wisdom and compassion in their stories. How easy it would be to despair if I only focused on the suffering they tell of. But there is hope in the magic of human-to-human connection.
They say that we teach what we need to learn. I am learning more about myself through Sidewalk Talk than I have through most of the professional CDP programmes that I have attended put together. Certainly I am discovering that I not the superhuman ‘empath’ that I aspired to be. It turns out I am just a hurting human being. And listening to another human being has incredible healing power. It also turns out, that heart-centred listening is not a capability. It is a practice. Likewise becoming human. So, it seems, it is not such an altruistic endeavour I’ve embarked on after all. Perhaps, in fact, there is a perfectly imperfect, human selfishness in it too.
And yes, sometimes there aren’t so many people who choose to sit down with us, but as one of our volunteers so beautifully put it: Our success is not how many people we listen to. Our success is that we are here.
Find out more about the global Sidewalk Talk movement and our HEAR programme for organisations on our website, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Transforming business by developing exceptional leaders | Executive Coach | Leadership Consultant | Speaker
I volunteer for a street listening project Sidewalk Talk. Little did I know what gifts 'giving back' would bring to me when I embarked on this journey. With deep gratitude to founder Traci Ruble and my lovely volunteers Geof Ellingham, Christina Gates, Katie Demain, Laura Cook, Alan Ross, Rob Baker, Cath Brown, Ann Hall, Karen Wilson, Tara Case, Megan Hall, Angie Main, Sally Norris. #listening #connection #community.
The Heidelberg Sidewalk Talk listeners pulled up chairs in the freezing cold Monday night on an empty stretch of sidewalk and made it warm with connection. What if our communities were places of belonging? What problems could we solve in the world if this was our reality? Pictured are people from all over the world in this very diverse city speaking many different languages.
Are you responsible for Sidewalk Talk’s movement to create culture change one heart-centered conversation at a time?
You probably are and don’t even know it.
You are a Sidewalk Talk creator if you;
What do you feel inside when you let yourself really register how Sidewalk Talk is because of you?
Let that wash over you for a second.
Every little thing you choose to do to keep this Sidewalk Talk bus driving along the highway, banners out the windows, gas in the bus, is you raising your hand and saying “Look I see all the problems in the world and I know we can solve them if we can first connect."
"Everything I want to change in this world is possible from the starting point of heart-centered dialogue.”
If you have not yet become a part of the Sidewalk Talk awakening rippling across the world to wake up hearts to make us healthier, happier, and wiser, what would be different about your daily well being if you were fully on board?
How would it feel to say out loud to people you know “Yeah human connection is the thing that is going to save us. We cannot be healthy people, with a healthy planet, with healthy equality, and healthy politics unless we prioritize connection to each other no matter how different we are.”
Sidewalk Talk has very concrete impacts on the world.
Sidewalk Talk is in 92 locations across 15 countries - we have doubled in size since last year.
Our goal is to create more ease and joy for chapter leaders, a clear link to their impact, and more frequently listening everywhere. The big goal is to listen to 11,000 people a month around the globe. Can you imagine the ripple effects of that?
Here is what Sidewalk Talk does with money we earn:
1. First, all money goes to Social Good who are our bosses so they have to approve what we do with our money.
2. Money is making our impact 3x more efficient. In the old days we didn’t even have a website! Here is our stance on money.
3. Our mission of connection guides our growth. Intentional growth keeps us out of “harmful hustle” that leads to the disconnection problem in the first place. What is coming? A global and diverse advisory board is coming together to keep our heart focus and inclusion to all voices central and we are crafting a community voting system to influence direction. Everything we do with marketing messaging and partnering activities must have service rather than growth as its core ethic.
So if you are new to us, these are how we move through the world.
You are here because this is your mission. You have been called to it.
We invite you to stretch by asking others to join in.
For #GivingTuesday we need 100 monthly angel investors to get fully behind this mission with a monthly investment.
Maybe you are called to be that monthly angel investor. Or maybe you are called to go find those angels. You are making the world a better place.
Thank you for taking this stand to create connection, inclusion, belonging, and wellness in a divided and disconnected world.
A friend was telling me she was a big fan of a teacher who taught anger management. Then she began to volunteer for the organization and was surprised at how angry folks were inside the very organization hoping to dispel anger.
We chuckled together because we both knew that often we teach what we most need to learn. I started a listening project because I am a shitty listener and forget that I am a human being who needs other human beings. My nickname when I was in corporate life was “the machine” because I could get so much done in a day at great expense to my own well-being. So I bring a lot of humility to this work of listening and perhaps that willingness to be a beginner over and over makes me the best possible teacher. I know how hard it is to listen. As a result, I have reflected on what I have learned over the years and we have built a new organizational curriculum called HEAR.
Here is the rub...Sidewalk Talk is over 7000 volunteers and 92 chapter leaders and it is easy for my “people pleaser” “machine-like-self” to work around the clock to try to meet every person’s needs. I have certainly erred in that direction from time to time, that is for sure, but mostly I say no to a lot of pulls on my energy and time so I can stay a loving human. Some folks don't like boundaries - they feel mean but actually boundaries are a big part of connection. My heart’s desire is to walk the talk and all the volunteers who soar at Sidewalk Talk hold the same ethic to HEAR each other. Let me just say, some of the best humans I have ever met in my whole life, are inside this project.
Friday, in between psychotherapy sessions, I had an hour call booked with a volunteer who does design for us and our marketing person. I slowed down enough to say “Hey I am coming to this call with some high-intensity couples sessions so I am a little wobbly and feeling the pressure of our short time together to get a lot done. What are you bringing - good or bad?” Their answers about their lives, their kids, took all of four minutes but the remaining “worker-bee” conversation was filled with connection, joy, and creativity largely due to how we shared and listened at the start of our conversation. I still caught myself interrupting, feeling the crunch of time, and then I would come back, just like in any awareness practice, and remembered to HEAR these beautiful souls on this call with me.
Our successes and our failures to be big-hearted humans with each other led to the development of our new organizational training called HEAR that we bring to those of you who want to experience the magic of Sidewalk Talk. It is way more than training, it is a stance. When we all feel life-affirming connections at work we are more eager and engaged. Who doesn’t want that?
HEAR stands for Honor, Embody, Accept We Assume, and Respond.
Honor is a bow. We come to each conversation willing to see a person as having many parts. We bring reverence for their humanity in a very special, almost sacred way (certainly not a machine-like way). Everyone has great joys and great heartaches, no matter if they are a homeless vet or a wealthy CEO.
Embody is a word that was meaningless to me twenty years ago but is perhaps the MOST important part of my listening practice. I am not connecting with you with my judging brain but my whole being of feelings, sensations, and presence. When I am inside my own skin I also know when I need a break or need to set a limit.
Accept We Assume is a dozy for some. Here is the scoop...our brains are hard-wired to notice difference, have bias, and make assumptions. If we accept that our brains do this we can course correct. If we deny, we will continue to perpetuate disconnection and bias. “Oh look, I just assumed that person doesn’t speak English because of what they look like?” or “Oh look my boss just set a boundary with me which means they are a jerk?” Those are both assumptions. We have biases based on role, identity, religion, appearance, age, voice, and the list goes on. It is O.K. The thing to remember is don’t believe your assumptions. Open beyond them and the connection that awaits is magical.
Finally, responding is way more than repeating back what you heard. Responding is a facial, tonal, verbal and full-hearted intentional communication that says “I see you and I am with you.” There is no agenda to change this person’s state. What our initial research has shown is listeners feel just as great as the talkers. We all feel less alone in a heart-centered dialogue.
I hope you might consider taking up the practice of HEAR wherever you go. Taking the time to honor each other, embody our whole self, accept that assumptions will crop up to be dealt with and responding with intention in our listening allows us to make our organizations life-affirming rather depleting and humanizing, rather than dehumanizing. We need more of that in this world, now more than ever. Join in. I can vouch that since I started applying HEAR my whole world has become brighter.
If you are in Atlanta, GA, San Francisco, CA, New Jersey, Greater Los Angeles, the UK, and Western Europe, we have spots for 2 pro bono HEAR training's for organizations interested in trying our model out in each area. Training always includes bringing your team out to listen on the sidewalk. Complete this application here.
I am a woman, therapist, wife, mom, friend, listener, and founder/leader of Sidewalk Talk. You can subscribe to my couples therapy list here.