In 2018, our community minister Barbara Meyers started the Fremont chapter of Sidewalk Talk, the community building program introduced by the therapist Tracy Ruble of San Francisco in 2015. By 2018, Sidewalk Talk had spread to 70 cities in 12 countries around the world and included 1700 therapists and volunteers.
Basically, chairs are set up at free “listening posts” available to passersby, who may talk about anything. Why? We believe that empathy and belonging are the roots of mental health, and listening is a great method for offering these.
Some excerpts from the listener training materials follow for general information. To become a trained listener, visit www.sidewalktalksf.com
Human beings, by nature, long for a deep sense of connection and bonding with each other. But we live in a culture that promotes individual achievement and self-reliance. Driven, sitting behind a computer screen, sometimes we realize we feel cruddy. We’re lonely. Some people just express it as being crabby. Most of the time, we walk around self-absorbed, acting like, “I don’t want to be involved with you; I don’t have time for you.” This happens all day long. We’re not really facing ourselves, personally or as a community.
At Sidewalk Talk, we want to create a place, a world, where we all belong and want to live, where people know each other and smile and remember what each other are going through. We’re not preaching anything. We’re not selling anything. People don’t even have to give their names.
Sidewalk Talk listeners are all lovely persons or they wouldn’t be doing this. They consider themselves privileged to be able to sit and listen to people. They have been taught skills that have been honed on the sidewalk, skills the public can try at home as they, themselves, become better listeners.
When we at Sidewalk Talk are on the streets listening, we want to really understand what’s going on with this person today. Sometimes we are radically different from the individual across from us, but unless a boundary is crossed that tells us to end this conversation, we want to stay with them to make space for them to discover who they are in this process. We actually want to come in contact with people who are not like us, and remember the humanity of all members of our society. It makes us feel safe to note things we have in common with others, but it’s as distinct persons that we see each other most clearly.
We are trained not to try to “fix” people or give advice for life problems. This actually damages connection, because it often conveys messages like, “Hurry up and get over it because I’m uncomfortable,” “I know better than you,” or “What you’re going through is a problem; you’re a problem.” It hurts to see someone in pain or despair, but premature soothing and solving is not the solution. Connection is the solution. When we really stay with someone, we help them discover what they’re meant to discover on the other end of these feelings. In essence, the speakers gain space to reveal to themselves who they are and the place they are at right now, and those two things are always changing.
Of course, it’s okay not to talk about bad stuff, although that’s what most people think being honest and vulnerable is all about. We hear each other into existence, including the joys.
Even though two people can never agree on everything, we can can always validate the experience of each other as completely human. And get to know each other. Everyone feels better. It’s very enjoyable to to be in connection from this place of acceptance.
Research shows that the most important thing when a person is hurting is not what someone does so much as the mere fact of being there. It’s the empathy and compassion we show by our presence that’s paramount. Emotional resonance—feeling for someone else—awakens human connection. Our kindness is our credential.
It’s amazing that people will come and sit down with us at Sidewalk Talk and realize that they hadn’t been listened to, deeply, by another human being sometimes for weeks or longer. So they’re sad and lonely. People want to feel really known. But listening is hard. Someone else’s “movie” is just static until we turn off our own movie that is usually running “click-click-click” in our heads. To prepare to listen to someone, it’s very helpful to still ourselves first for them. There are many techniques, such as mindful breathing, feeling our feet on the ground, calmly watching our thoughts go by like traffic, etc. By showing curiosity and expressing interest, the barrier of distance and “otherness” is passed and people can open more deeply, especially to themselves.
When do you have someone intentionally take down the walls and just listen to you? Maybe if you have a good parent. Or a good therapist. Maybe. It’s especially hard with people you know well. But perhaps we can all learn to do this more often.
“We are feeling machines that think. We are relating machines that think. But we live our lives like we are thinking machines that just happen to feel.” —Tracy Ruble
Some Psychology and Neuroscience
There has been a huge explosion in neuroscience since the 1970s, bringing a better understanding of how the brain works. New ideas in psychology have also arisen to challenge the old.
Italian researchers in the 1990s made a discovery that helps explain empathy, our innate ability to see others as ourselves. Humans and other primates have “mirror neurons.” These respond the same when we’re performing an action as when we witness or imagine it in others. Usually, these special nerve cells are inactive, but social interaction automatically elicits them. With less social contact, however, the mirror neurons become more dormant. We feel less empathetic toward others and also have less capacity to experience another person’s empathy toward us.
When we empathize and imagine each other’s experience, we enter the higher brain of the prefrontal cortex and quiet the reptilian brain (the limbic system), which is always scanning for danger. It’s the upper brain that releases neurochemicals of peace and well-being. The upper brain is where you want to live. It integrates in the face of complexity and coordinates our voluntary activities. It is also the world of words. The reptilian brain has no words; it’s all primal drives and feelings.
When people tell each other a story, and listen, there is a natural closeness that happens. When people are together doing the same thing, a natural bonding and excitement happens. Being with someone in an open, caring way activates the smart vagus nerve, which feeds back into your stress response system and says, “Okay, you can calm down, you’re safe.” When that’s activated, your dopamine reward system gives you a little bit of dopamine, so you feel kind of energetic and motivated. Even a simple smile between people activates the smart vagus nerve and calms the stress response system. Furthermore, when we listen to somebody, the tiny muscles of the inner ear, when they vibrate, stimulate the smart vagus nerve. It’s all part of the brain’s social engagement network.
The area of the brain that feels pain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, is activated when people feel they are being left out, socially. And it’s always on to a certain degree in most people’s brains. We want to find “our people,” “our group.” Our brain, our body, wants to belong. But our brain is always automatically sorting and trying to be sure we’re safe with our tribe, so it takes intention and practice to include others who are not like us. Can we be comfortable with our “tribe” being all people everywhere or even something bigger?
Listening to another person without judgment is much more relaxing than being stuck where your own thoughts are arising, which can be taxing. It’s tiring to have to have opinions about whether this person is right, or wrong, or stupid, or whatever. It’s like arguing inside your own head. But being present to calmly hear the experiences of another puts you in the flow of being, and being is restful. When a moment of silence comes up when listening to someone, resist the temptation to immediately fill it with words. Something very deep may be about to emerge.
Tone of voice is the most subtle and powerful element in conversation. Next is body language. The actual words and content rank last of all.
Since Freud, psychology tried to explore the inside of the person and their memories. Now it’s being seen that change only happens by interacting differently in the present, not mulling over the past. It’s what’s happening outside the person that changes what’s inside, not the other way around. The change happens when the field between people is changed. Stewarding and nourishing the space between people is the way to health. This is done by practicing engaging warmly with the people in our everyday lives, like that checkout person, asking how their day has been, mirroring them, sharing some humor or some thoughts with them, just practicing being relational. Try to replace fear of others and judgment with wonder and curiosity about them. We really just want people to wonder about us, ask questions, and listen. You’ll find you both feel better. Curiosity and wonder are part of the brain that release neurochemicals of wellbeing and excitement. It’s a tremendously joyful way to live.
We don’t exist in a vacuum; we need to borrow each other’s nervous systems. When we go outside and connect, we feel good. When we disconnect and go inside, we don’t. People are just built that way. What creates the inside is the outside. When outside relationships are great, individuals thrive. We are the survival of the nurtured, not the survival of the fittest.
We get a big indoctrination about being a separate entity, our best self, standing on our own two feet. But separation invariably leads to disconnection, depression, and a shorter life, statistically. Some think the call for connection is encouraging weakness, asking strong individuals to be dependent. This is not so. Connection is a biological imperative for wellbeing and functioning. We need to belong to somebody, to some group. How about the human race, and maybe the plants and animals and rest of the universe as well? We’ll certainly function better than feeling like a lonely, tethered spaceman, which actually makes us sicker. You’d go crazy on an island by yourself. You’d come up with someone to talk to! By the way, people can feel belonging and connection in a number of ways. A cat or a dog, a spiritual awareness, or even God can all be portals to a world bigger than ourselves.
Psychologists have identified three stages of relationship. First, there’s interest and maybe attraction. Then comes a power struggle, the inevitable second stage. And the third stage is learning to have a solid relationship and affection. You commit to be friends or learn true love. It’s mutual, the needs of each are being met. Trouble at the second stage is when relationships often break apart. We think we’re not right for each other. But no—if you’re having trouble, it means a transformation in the relationship is trying to happen. Get curious about what things you could change, maybe even a little, or what new skill might help in the transformation.
Healthy connection with another human being has five results psychiatrists have noticed: increased zest and energy, more clarity about each other and the relationship, more ability to act or speak out between each other and in the world, a greater sense of self-worth because of feeling valued, and a desire for more connection. Conversely, from studies of trauma victims, we know that when things get fragmented, everything falls apart and disintegrates. And we’re very disintegrated right now as a culture and a species.
Listening like we do on Sidewalk Talk counters the “Who’s in power?” pitfall. Research proves that power over others distorts relationships in a profound way. People start acting out of roles and expectations. It’s very difficult to have an authentic, mutual relationship with a person who has power over us. Naturally, in many situations, somebody has to be the leader or someone is more invested, but power for the sake of power makes things fall apart, relationally. You have people going underground, unable to express themselves, or even in danger from the person who has power over them. And it’s bad for the person with that kind of dominance. Studies show that when you give people more power, there’s decreased activity in the mirror neuron system, less empathy. The subjects even start eating differently; more greedily, with crumbs falling out of their mouths, for instance. This shines a light on what’s happening with the lonely, isolated CEOs that psychiatrists see in their work. Nobody gives them any real feedback. They die sooner because they’re alone. A heart attack at age 55. It’s very toxic, the dominant-submissive relationship. If you are in a position of authority, practice power with people, not over people. Compassion is only felt between equals.
Some final thoughts about listening. If what is being said goes beyond the listener’s personal boundaries, it triggers their stress-response system and should be stopped. It’s not helpful. And listeners also need to be listened to, to have their time in the chair. We live in a culture that overvalues speaking, even to the point of speaking past each other. But the capacity to listen deeply is just as important. It soothes the pain paths in people and gives reassurance. What a gift.