On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
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.