On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Even Brené Brown says listening and connecting with strangers will help heal the wounds of disconnection, loneliness, and not belonging our society is rife with. She says, lean in and hold the hand of a stranger in her most recent OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett.
When I first started listening on the sidewalk, I am afraid to say, I had never read a Brené Brown book. I remember watching her TED Talk about a year later.
Brené and I share something in common. I’ll bet many of you share this common thing with us too.
I am convinced this is why we all put so much energy into connection, vulnerability, and listening to strangers. Like Brené, I had a deep-seated feeling of “not belonging” in my own family.
I am going to go personal. You ready?
My mom didn’t want me. I did not belong.
Many Sidewalk Talk volunteers and I have bonded around our shared experience.
When I got in trouble as a little girl, Debbie, my mom, would retell me the story about going to have me aborted. Her message to me was “Traci, you are lucky to be alive so quit complaining”. It makes my birthdays complex, for sure. (I just had mine on Monday).
My mother was also married six times. For brief moments between husbands, I was special. She was nice. She needed me. But the new guy would enter and I was cast aside. I felt unsafe and braced for the next “connection betrayal”. Debbie passed away in August of 2019, and my family, who I still feel a deep sense of not belonging, did not call to tell me nor invite me to her services.
I have done a lot of therapy around this wound. And this wound will always shape me...in painful and wonderful ways. And, we need to celebrate this together for it has made me eager to make it better for other people. It has made me eager to understand Debbie’s story of loneliness and disconnection. And it has made me eager to understand this disconnection and loneliness problem our world is creating. This is my own, hero’s journey.
Society looks and feels a lot like my family did.
The “not wanted”, “you are lucky you are alive so stop complaining” and “you are only good to me when I need you” stuff is harmful. And yet our social brains are wired to belong so we take those messages of “not being wanted” and instead hustle to fit in.
But as Brené Brown points out, when we try to fit in rather than being authentic we feel lonelier. So we find “common enemy intimacy” as an antidote. I talk about this in an upcoming documentary on Sidewalk Talk but never heard it put so eloquently.
In the recent OnBeing Interview, Brené Brown leaves us all with two actionable things to take up to change this “friggen” culture. One is inner and one is outer.
Again, the connection between people — you can’t sever it, but you can forget it. So to find moments of collective joy and pain and to lean into those, with strangers, reminds us of that something bigger. - Brené Brown
So here we are, us Sidewalk Talk listeners. We are healing in our collective effervescence together, aren’t we? The more places and spaces of belonging we can create among our volunteers of all faiths, politics, identities, races, genders, and economics, the more we interrupt this “common enemy intimacy” and feel more joyful because we remember that we belong to each other. My other hope is that we shift the culture of a sidewalk, library, bus station, subway train, or cafe to one where people who are listened to know they matter and they belong and they didn’t have to divorce themselves from their authenticity to get it.
Belonging is my dream for every human the world over.
The little kid parts of me are so proud of grown-up me for creating a world safe for her. I am glad to know you and grateful you are doing the same. I feel hopeful and you have contributed to my own healing. Thank You for that.
One important ask.
As we have grown, the kid parts of me have called me out on not taking care of them. So Sidewalk Talk has hired some folks to help me grow this movement without creating my own "internal" not belonging. If you are called, please consider making a small monthly sustaining donation so we don't have to hire fancy and expensive fundraising folks. I just learned we only need 50 more monthly donors. You may not have the cash but I suspect someone you know may want to hear my story and have $5, $10, or $20 a month to support this movement. Share this? Here is the giving link. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
I am a couples therapist, as you know by now. I spend a LOT of time encouraging active listening and empathy between spouses. Important work, slowing the pace down of a heated fight using reflection and mirroring. That slowing down, can, but not always, open heated arguers up to a larger perspective and even empathy for the person they are arguing with. It is beautiful, when it works.
Active listening alone, cannot bring about real connection.
I had a co worker some years ago who was brilliant at active listening. Weirdly, I never felt connection to her. It was a technique she used to protect herself from getting too close. Not to get closer.
Some people use active listening and mirroring to avoid connection.
"How is this even possible?" you might ask. Connection is about how you, as the listener, show up to the dialogue - not how well you mirror. Nor is connection about how vulnerable, personal, or deep the talker goes. You heard Dr. Rosmann and I talk about this on this week’s podcast.
So what are we actually to be doing, then, if we are not just “reflecting”, “mirroring”, and “active” listening?
1. We are coming with open curiosity and total surrender of our opinions.
2. We bring a massive amounts of faith and trust that in this curious place of connection something quite profound and soulful can emerge.
That's right. I did just say faith and trust must accompany the our very deep surrender and open curiosity.
I knew this in my bones from listening on the sidewalk but when Dr. Rosmann and I spoke, she put words to it and my heart beamed. And being the visual thinker that I am, I drew us all some pictures.
May we all keep opening up in our connections and have faith the soulfulness that tcan emerge!
Judging someone is a real bugger.
Judgment prevents us from connecting as people. And it kinda makes us sick.
Not proudly, I judge people all the time. And I am not always aware when I am doing it. Sidewalk Talk and being married have both been my biggest teachers for being a better human.
A dear friend, Jamie McHugh, shared a quote with me,
“Judgement and anger are always a signpost of an unmet need.”
This quote reminds me of training I did with Marshall Rosenberg in 2005.
“Great so I have an unmet need, I am still mad and I’m judging and blaming the other person for it. What is your point, Traci?”
Let me tell you a story that will help this all come to life.
I see couples for therapy in the evening. Three nights I week I get home after ten pm and it is pitch black out and finding the door, getting the key in the lock...it is impossible if the porch light isn’t on. One week, my husband forgot to leave the porch light on for the third time. I was very snarky and judgemental when I got in the house. “He is so lazy.” “He is so selfish.”. “He is so ..fill in the blank.”
Because I love my partner, I am motivated to dig beneath the surface of my snark and I try to dialogue with the parts of me that are so upset rather than being a self-righteous jerk to him. “I am so sorry you are upset, Traci. What is the truest truth here? What most tender need didn’t get met by your husband that you can share tenderly with him rather than lambast him?”
To figure out what the heck is up with me I first need to close my eyes, feel the tension of the judgment and anger in my body and let my care and compassion for my hurt melt it a bit and then the real tender hurt part of me reveals itself.
My judgment and self-righteousness was a way I was trying so hard NOT to feel my vulnerability. A part of me felt forgotten and unimportant - an old wound indeed. (No wonder it was hotter than the situation called for.)
A few minutes later I got in touch with my need for nurturance and consideration. And whamo, I am free and open and available for a connected dialogue with my husband that has nothing to do with making up some judgemental story about my guy, nor using some “heady” 1, 2, 3 steps for better dialogue.
Heart-centered listening fixed my whole judgemental sassy stuff.
In my years of practicing this kind of heart-centered listening and dialogue it doesn’t always work out, though. My husband may still forget to leave the porch light on. Or, in some instances, other folks I have shared my tenderness with rebuke with pep talks to “get over it” or “go meditate” or “count to 4 and the feeling will shift” instructions. Some folks will not honor our tenderness and vulnerability, ever and that painful truth we can also be heart-centered with.
None of this is about getting the other person to change.
It is about us being heart-centered, even when the world around us cannot. That is why such simple acts of dialogue and connection are WAAAAY more than reflective listening. Reflective listening is a technique. Being heart-centered is a state. And it is a radical, life-altering, world-transforming state to walk around the world in.
Will you join me in using our own hearts to melt our judgments by getting clear what is really true in our most tender places inside?
From those tender places we can learn to be tender with all the different parts of ourselves and tender with all the different people in the world and do right by them. That is what we are practicing at Sidewalk Talk but you don’t have to come listen with us to practice. You can start right now, today.
I am someone who likes dancing with shadow stuff. I don’t just walk around with toothy smiles and like talking about love, positivity, and growth. I like knowing what makes us ache as humans. The positive and negative aspects feel authentic and more genuine to me.
But even for someone who likes dark stuff, the world feels increasingly intense and painful right now. It seems some new environmental catastrophe, the threat of war, or injustice emerges every day. I watch friends post things on social media and I see the desire to find some steady ground by hunting for a root cause, placing blame, taking the position as the righteous actor. I notice myself drift in and out of all of these places too. I feel less human and less humane in this casting about.
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to Yemeni activist, writer, mom, deep feeler, lovely human, Atiaf Alwazir. She will be on the podcast in April. Be sure to follow to and listen along here so you get the update when she is live.
In our moment of connection, we stretched beyond the anguish and human atrocities going on in Yemen. And I was left feeling like I had come to afternoon tea with Atiaf as she described how the women dress up and gather every afternoon. I could smell the spices of the fish dish and could hear the laughter of friendship and mothering together. What happens, when we leave out joy, is we can no longer connect as people. We dehumanize when we are out of balance in our joy or despair.
Atiaf said, “You know Traci when wars and bad things happen, we cannot just talk about a place and a people as victims. We have to also hold joy and reverence too for their resilience and livelihood.”
I am reminded of a quote that goes something like this...I have to stretch my arms wide to my grief and my joy so I may embrace myself and others in hard times.
Don’t confuse what I am saying as advocating for a kind of bypassing “zoning out” kind of joy that is about avoiding taking action. We must act but hard to do if hopelessness has zapped us of all our energy.
Atiaf reminded me that there is another kind of joy - the joy of remembering that in great tragedy there is also great resilience and we need to feel into those positives in order to thrive in the negatives. She reminded me that even while I am an adept shadow dancer some days I can get too lost in my dark feelings when the world is burning.
Balancing our despair with “effective hope” is an act of protest in these dark times. We must stretch our arms for both our despair and hope. For when we don’t, we run the risk of perpetuating the disconnection that leads to these crises in the first place.
George Kinder will also be coming on the podcast soon and he invites us all, in his book, The Golden Civilisation, to start creating the space to have an effective conversation about the world we want to create. He encourages us to hold each other accountable for taking these action steps to start creating that world together. His is another version of balancing the negative.
For me, Sidewalk Talk was my way of finding that balance between my despair over gun violence, injustice, and police brutality. I could see how media reports turned people into caricatures rather than people and we were rushing to blame or be right. For me listening was rehumanizing and hopeful.
So if you are looking for a way to find balance in the chaos, come out and take up the practice of listening on the sidewalk with us. And if you cannot join us on the sidewalk, you can lean in, in other ways. Email firstname.lastname@example.org on how to be a Sidewalk Talk ambassador, start a chapter, or help our operations team. Let’s stretch wide our embrace.
I am a woman, therapist, wife, mom, friend, listener, and founder/leader of Sidewalk Talk. You can subscribe to my couples therapy list here.