On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Last month, I was sitting on a sidewalk in Heidelberg, Germany. A man had been watching us for thirty minutes so a volunteer walked over and invited him to sit and talk.
I was privileged with getting to listen to him. Neither German, nor English, were his first language. And yet, we found our way together, cobbling together a mix of German and English.
Last month I also got to hear the leadership stories of Dr. Narendra Thagunna in Nepal and Patricia Maria Martins, in São Paulo, Brazil. We did not share a common language. Being a foreigner, learning a language, gave me a special kind of reverence for their courage to speak in their non-native language for our interview series and podcast.
Not judging non-native speakers is a shift inside me. As a teen, I had assumptions I made about people who did not speak the same language as me. "They are hard of hearing" or "they are not as smart." One of the great joys of aging and practicing listening at Sidewalk Talk is how my brain has changed and it quite naturally no longer makes that assumption or at least I notice assumptions I make about people really quickly, now.
How do we listen, if we do not share the same language?
I quite literally deploy all the ingredients of HEAR, our new organizational training protocol, here at Sidewalk Talk. H is for Honor. E is for Embody. A is for Accept we Assume and Assumptions Check, and R is for respond.
I come with a deep intention to HONOR this person as whole and deserving of love and respect just because they are human. This intention shapes my wonder and curiosity, my respect, and my ability to stay silently reverent. Part of showing honor to someone who speaks a different language is to invite a person to teach me the exact correct pronunciation of their name. To share with me some of the favorite words from their language or if they are struggling with a word in my native language, can they teach me that word in their language, and I practice saying it with them, as a show of honor and respect for their native tongue and as a way to be in resonance with them.
I stay inside my own skin and stay as present as possible, but I also pay attention to their body language so we can share an EMBODIED experience. Getting too analytic, intellectually can make a person feel like they are in a petri dish. Instead, I am a big ball of ME and they get to be a big ball of THEM and I notice them as a total self and they notice me as a total self.
3. Assumptions check
I have become deeply curious about my assumption making brain. I make assumptions about others, about myself, about the world, and it is now a natural habit to question virtually every assumption I make. ASSUMPTIONS CHECK and ACCEPTANCE that all brains make assumptions helps me not make that fateful assumption that a different language spoken means hard of hearing, not intelligent, or any other assumptions a person can make.
My RESPONSES incorporate Honor, Embodiment, and Assumptions Checking. I am not merely repeating what I have heard but responding to "who this person is". In the simplest of terms, I let my heart speak.
Back to my exchange with the man in Heidelberg. As the man sat, he began to shiver. I noticed his jacket was not warm. I found a blanket and covered him with it. He smiled. He shared the essence of what was true for him. In some moments I could not understand the message exactly, but I could see and feel in my body the general music and I stayed with him and leaned forward and shared what I was hearing in word and energy. He smiled again. Then he said, I was feeling alone before I sat down. Now I am not. And in a way, I heard him better than I could, if our conversation had been filled with words.
I am a woman, therapist, wife, mom, friend, listener, and founder/leader of Sidewalk Talk. You can subscribe to my couples therapy list here.