On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Over the years, I have witnessed ways in which empathy and active listening can harm rather than serve.
Weird thing to say, right?
Stay with me.
We all need to digest this fully for empathy to help rather than harm.
In many forms of psychology, the self is not one solid, always consistent, thing. We are moving from different parts of ourselves all the time and growth is about learning our inner architecture so we have more choice in our lives to live freely rather than shackled by psychological patterns that are outside our awareness. When our minds and relating patterns are fixed we are driven by defense mechanisms rather than empowerment.
For some people, active listening and empathy can be a defense mechanism that harms rather than helps.
Below is a diagram from Transactional Analysis. Just one simple model among many different ways to view how the self is split into many parts or ego states. I don't love the primacy given to "thinking" and "rationality" in this diagram and wish the word "thought' under the adult column were swapped out for "regulated" but the image still serves us. albeit, imperfect. (I also love Gestalt Theory, Internal Family Systems, Systems Theory, Jungian Analysis, Trauma and Sensorimotor Therapy, and Indigenous Concentric Systems Framework Theory who all have parts models).
I have witnessed folks who engage in active listening from a parent or child ego state. Their listening isn’t free because they are needing to be a savior, seen as good, or right (parent). These listeners feel badly if talkers don’t share something intensely personal or emotional, don’t get a lot of people coming to share with them, don’t get recognition from the community for their act of service, or they get angry when they are challenged with a boundary.
What is often missed in most listening training is the skill to track what ego state we are listening from that stops equality in our connection.
I am going to throw my own profession and myself lovingly under the bus a bit.
Therapists get into this work for various reasons but often one main one is to help. I know a snaggly part of me studied psychology because I was trying to prove I wasn’t crazy as I was told by my mother my entire childhood. “Something is wrong with you” she would tell me virtually any time I had an emotion that wasn’t happy. I continue to do earnest inner work around my defense mechanisms and I see my work as part of justice work. Yet, while conscious of my ego states more than most, I still get caught in what transactional analysis terms drama triangles.
Photo From Data Hive UK, How To Train Your Brain For Business Success
The Victim sees life as happening to them and feels powerless to change their circumstances. Victims place blame on a Persecutor who can be a person or a situation. Being powerless, the victim ostensibly seeks a rescuer to solve the problem for them. Victims also have a sneaky interest in validating their problem as being unsolvable. The Rescuer, in turn, seems to want to help the victim but in fact acts in a way that is geared to the rescuer's own need to be seen. Forbes, How To Escape The Dreaded Drama Triangle, Blumenfeld
Without intentional inner work, we run the risk of perpetuating a power over, power under dynamic as therapists and empaths.
When I go to a dinner party and folks find out I am a therapist, they almost always ask “Oh are you analyzing me now?” to which I always reply “I only analyze people under two conditions. One, if I am being paid. Two, if I am acting some hurt of my own out and I am using my therapy training to try to gain power (persecutor or parent ego state).”
Non-profit volunteers engage in disempowering “saviorism”, “parent”, “rescuer”, or “power over” dynamics that may harm rather than help.
In fact, I am learning, drama triangles are even more rampant in volunteer work.
Does this mean do not do good? No way.
Does this mean do-gooders are bad people? No way.
It means we have an invitation right now to support equality and health by listening from our empowering adult selves.
And the way to do that is to look inward at how your “do gooder” is and is not an empowering adult part of you.
I will use my own mistakes as a good example of how to do this.
In response to the COVID19 quarantine, my scared child self first took over and felt like a victim because it only saw problems and the worst-case scenarios. I was looking desperately for a rescuer. My inner parent took over to help that inner child but it also quickly wanted to help everyone else too and on to rescuing everyone else I went.
But my adult said “Wait, Traci let’s go for a run, calm down, and think things through.” I got calm and solutions focused and zeroed in on options that were empowering to me and others.
Photo From Data Hive UK, How To Train Your Brain For Business Success
For our listening to provide the kind of connecting that heals our listening needs to be empowered and empowering. To do that, we need to understand our own inner ego states that may have us moving from an inner parent or inner child. When we move from either parent or child inside, we easily get sucked into harmful drama triangles with others.
The goal in our listening, is to move from our adult self and connect from the empowerment triangle. So often we talk about the importance of boundaries here at Sidewalk Talk. Why? Because having none means you are slipping into a rescuer mode in the drama triangle and that connection is not heart-centered and empowering to the talker.
Tips to remain in your empowered adult self when listening:
Let’s enable our listening to be an act of inner and outer empowerment and freedom for all.
Yesterday I was watching Kevin Bacon talk about his hashtag #IStayHomeFor and today, my German Sister-In-Law sent me an article by Matthias Horx. My life, since moving to Germany, involves a lot of staying home. I work from home. I eat at home for all my meals. I do not have a car so leaving home must be a deliberate and intentional act. Most mornings now, I wake up, coffee in bed, and several hours of reading and pondering. Long before #IStayHomeFor was a thing in response to Covid19, it was my reality. And I am thriving in this reality.
Home is interchangeable, for me, with the word heart. “I stay in my heart for…”.
Staying “home” has allowed me to be more self-actualized, more full of a self that is not pulled so quickly into neurotics, hustling for worth, or popularity but slower, soulful, tapped into a different kind of self in community that is wider and deeper. I am getting better at saying “No that doesn’t work for me.” And “Tell me what is happening for you.”
You can imagine I show up at Sidewalk Talk differently from this place. I can feel the usual pulls to go fast, hustle, be relevant according to external standards and then home calls me back. I get a call from an organization to partner, I get self-righteously angry at more white male-led connection projects gaining traction with little awareness of gender or racial bias, or external feedback that I am not a good spokesperson for connection because I am too old, too uncool and I get grumpy and testy...I am hooked to the demands of a homeless self.
But home calls me back. “Come inside Traci. Come rest here in truth.” Maybe home has called me for years and I would hear whispers but now I am in deep dialogue every day with home. I am no longer ok with my own homelessness. I often wonder if the physical representation of our internal state, homelessness on the streets, will ever be solved if we have not come home to ourselves.
This morning, my heart insisted, again. It said “don’t get online”, “Traci make time for your inner ponder”, “Traci come home”. I read Pia Melodie, Jan Gehl, Michael Lehofer, Matthias Horx, Dick Schwartz and took notes and looked out the window, pondered, wandered, and wondered. It is a privilege to have this space. A privilege I want for everyone.
My heart is now filled, ready to write and be in community with you, here on this page. When I finish, I will go outside and run through the trees in the forest with my son, still at home, but outside my home. And then I will have dinner with my family, still at home. And then I will call a friend, still at home.
While I feel worried about the sick and our ability to societally act with leadership and community in this Covid19 pandemic, I also have to admit, this quarantine has quenched something deep in me. For years, I have longed to see heart-centered living where self and community get to dance together on a massive scale. Putting chairs on sidewalks was never about fixing or helping people or promoting therapy.
Listening on sidewalks was a protest I was waging with myself and the world.
A protest that was calling me to “value heart” “stay home” and asking the society to value home and heart with me.
My deepest longing is to have beautiful, vibrant, self-actualized people, with bountiful differences, supported by a societal infrastructure that privileges us all equally to be in community from heart. I practice a kind of therapy that is about finding one’s way home, not addressing baseline symptoms to thrive better in a broken world. Listening is the jumping-off point - it is the starting line.
Listening is the lighthouse in our homeless storm. We were never meant to get good at living cast about on an upset sea.
Often, in these circumstances, we cannot get home without someone walking us there, holding the life raft steady, as Ram Dass so lovingly says.
#IStayHomeFor #IStayInMyHeartFor a world where we all can be in community with our beautiful self-actualized selves. What are you staying home for?
Head and heart are often in a tug of war inside of me. Especially right now. You too? So is fear and love. So is knowledge and wisdom. And so is aloneness and togetherness.
My heart, when I am living from it fully, is filled with birdsong, spring flowers, love, deep sorrow, righteous outrage, and unrequited longing. Inside heart-space is a nondual richness of all things that anchor me to meaning and community and from which my wisest decisions are made. And, truth be told, I inhabit this heart space twenty percent of my day. Still a victory from just a few years ago.
Today, as the world has slowed to a halt and everyone is advised to remain in their homes, the radical shift in what I see out there on city streets has spread me inside in many directions. I am cast about by my nerves, my hopes, my fears, and my faith. More than anything, I can observe, more concretely the faulty lense I knew was there but is now so visible it is like the dust on the bookshelves I cannot unsee once the full light hits them. This new awareness teaches me to quiet my chattering mind and return to my heart over and over again.
My heart is beaming with possibility for massive spiritual and communal awakening and it asks my ego to sit this one out, and go deeper.
Remaining full-hearted takes great care, I have learned. In fact, great GREAT care. To not get swayed by my own neuroses or the world’s neuroses require me to pace myself and ask with heart ‘what is my deepest intention right now?’ For that question always leads me back to the resilience of love rather than hatred and fear.
What I have learned most is self-care is not for soothing, comfort, and avoiding. Self-care is for remaining in my heart and facing.
Last week, I had a 40-minute conversation with Mark Nepo. Mark, for me, lives longer in these spaces of full-heartedness - where wisdom, knowledge, poetry, and longing collide. He is a prolific writer and people with large platforms like Oprah Winfrey (wisely I might ad) have invited him to share his heart with the world. My favorite thing about Mark is his poetry, humility, and equality in how he writes. He invites in the wisdom of indigenous cultures white colonizing history has devalued. He roots spiritual teachings in history so we have a context that prevents feel-good spiritual bypassing.
The conversation Mark and I had for the Sidewalk Talk Podcast did not record. I was sad, at first, but then oddly grateful. There were a couple sweet moments of our dialogue where “audience” dropped away and our conversation was private. Mark advised me about my first book and how to write it. He talked to me about pacing myself and living my pace, not the world’s pace.
My hope is we get another chance to come together but for now, what I want to invite us all to do over this time of “staying inside” is to go buy and read Mark’s book, More Together Than Alone. For every single listener at Sidewalk Talk and any other connection project, take this time to immerse yourself in what it means to be in community, for real. Even if you can’t get out of doors, you can get the book digitally. This book is a life work and took Mark longer to write than any of his other books. He covers history, politics, gun violence, love, hope and most of all, community. But more than anything it offers us something for this moment in time.
As we are immersed in avoiding a spreading contagion, called Covid19, what contagion we really need to heal from is how we, as Mark says, make anyone different an enemy.
How a lack of empathy and hearing one another’s lived stories leads us to consume each other, like shoes to wear and throw away when we are done with them. It is not time for one power to demand we follow a specific set of rules for how to be a person so we might live together. It is time for us to listen so deeply to our differences that we create a way to live together that honors who we all are. Bottom-up, rather than top-down community.
And it is happening. As I see Italian neighborhoods singing on their balconies, doctors and nurses working overtime, musicians offering free concerts, workplaces honoring workers in new ways, and even how we organize here at Sidewalk Talk, perhaps some of this will stick.
Perhaps our contagion of othering and usury will be replaced by heart, empathy, community, and inclusion.
That is my hope anyway. For now, I will start with me and cultivating this awareness here, with me first.
I would love to hear your favorite quotes from More Together Than Alone in the comments or what you hope will be a lasting positive impact from this time of global inwardness.
May we have health.
May we know our hearts.
May we know others’ hearts.
May we create a society that honors all hearts living together.
Sidewalk Talk chapter leaders around the world sit out on public sidewalks to change our culture to a connection culture. We aim to remain heartfelt and intentional so we can create hopeful connections while we all follow the WHO guidelines and local health guidelines during our community recovery from Coronavirus.
Let’s connect now. We would love to hear how you are taking care of yourself in the comments.
In the coming days, start a dialogue on our Instagram and Facebook prompts on all kinds of topics to keep us connecting.
We find some of the best of humanity and ourselves when we face new challenges together. Try something with me? In your mind’s eye, right now, imagine people cooperating and pitching in to find ways to support each other. Get some images of people taking food to someone in need, or keeping someone on quarantine company on the phone. See the class of second graders writing letters to elderly patients to “get well”. Fill out this scene in your mind and let it fill every cell of your body. Breathe in and out with this image several times.
Now be one of these helpers out in the world in whatever way you can.
I am kinda curmudgeonly, most days, but when shit hits the fan my heart just gets plugged into some massive source of hope and love so I am kind of floatin’ around like the neon love balloon again. Maybe we can be neon love balloons for each other right now.
Here is a fun TedX Talk on the direct impact our mindset has on our health. It has loads of very geeky science stuff.
May we be well.
May we be hopeful.
May we be intentional with our mindsets.
May we be helpers.
Sidewalk Talk Official Policy on Coronavirus
I do not have a lot to write today. I just want to invite us all to stand in what Parker Palmer calls righteous speech. There were primary elections in the US and many people are feeling disillusioned by the results.
I am watching, on social media, the opposite of righteous speech and instead self-righteous lecturing and “get over it” stuff.
We have an opportunity, as a community, to be salve be using our Sidewalk-Talk-style listening. We can HEAR each other with heart.
Will you join me in showing up differently?
Will you ask how someone is feeling and stay to hear?
Listen with the Sidewalk Talk HEAR model.
Maybe you will not only create salve for another human feeling a lot, Maybe you will learn something new by listening to another’s heart.
I am a woman, therapist, wife, mom, friend, listener, and founder/leader of Sidewalk Talk. You can subscribe to my couples therapy list here.