How much of your day do you spend listening to other people? I don’t mean half-heartedly nodding along while you mentally multi-task. I mean actively being present with another human being. These opportunities for connection are becoming increasingly rare in our hyper-connected world where distractions abound.
It’s difficult to stay focused long enough to listen to the people you love, let alone engage thoughtfully with someone you disagree with, whether that be your boss, a difficult colleague or someone whose political affiliations differ from yours.
Yet we’re facing a loneliness epidemic spurred on by disconnection. Being heard, feeling seen and getting validation are not only crucial components of good communication, but they are also essential for mental health.
Sidewalk Talk is an initiative that attempts to bridge the gaps we face today and give voice to marginalized emotions, people and communities. A team of volunteers take to city streets across the globe, simply sitting outside in chairs, eager to listen to any stranger who comes along wanting to chat. In these high-conflict times, Sidewalk Talk is attempting to use listening to heal, which is why when I first heard about the project, I knew I had to get inside the mind of the woman who started it, Traci Ruble.
In this interview, she discusses her inspiration for starting Sidewalk Talk along with the powerful ways the initiative is serving diverse, marginalized communities. Traci, a seasoned psychotherapist, also breaks down practical tips you can use to become a better listener, even in stressful situations.
Melody Wilding: You’ve been a psychotherapist for 14 years. What inspired you to start Sidewalk Talk?
Traci Ruble: Sidewalk Talk was not a heady decision. It was inspired. The inspiration was Psychological, Social and Spiritual all wrapped up in one. Presidential elections were getting vitriolic in 2003. In response, I had a profound call that we needed more love and equanimity in our political conversations. Years later, gun violence (the Sandy Hook Shooting and the Charleston shooting), knocked me over.
All I wanted to do was hear directly from people why we were shooting each other. Finally, the results of the Trayvon Martin case pushed me to finally sit and offer free listening on the sidewalk. I wanted to step out of “preach or teach” mode and wanted to hear directly from folks we frequently don’t listen to. It felt like the right way for me to be in community to perhaps create some connection and justice.
Ruble: We call Sidewalk Talk a community listening project because it is everyone’s project. We pull this project off for very little money per year and it has grown because members in various communities across the world have taken our street listening guidelines and launched their own Sidewalk Talk chapters. It is also a community listening project because when we sit on public sidewalks we become community glue.
We take over a sidewalk and next think you know, you will have every member of the community represented, sitting side by side, being heard. A few months ago, in San Francisco, we had two young black women (who didn’t know each other but became friends after), a homeless vet, a gay activist, an older female Asian executive, and a young white male ‘tech bro’ all sitting shoulder to shoulder, being listened to.
The whole community was included and had a place to belong in the same space, as equals. Now that, that was profound. That is the dream vision. But along the way, the community inside Sidewalk Talk, as an organization, is one powerful place of belonging, growth and inclusion , as well.
Wilding: You talk a lot about the power of human connection. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from listening to strangers on the street?
Ruble: Most important lesson hands down: listening non-defensively is way easier than reacting or avoiding and it is pleasurable. Who wouldn’t want to change their behavior in the direction of ease and pleasure? But it isn’t easy and it takes practice. So often when we listen, we don’t know how to have boundaries so we can feel “emotionally contaminated” by people.
We react or avoid altogether. We need to practice “being with” people while also holding neutrality and lenses on possibility. I don’t mean phony “mantra type” positive thinking but the hearing the whole person under this story where possibility exists. When people feel the best parts of them seen in troubled times, they often rise to the occasion. But it is delicate.
Too much lightness can feel patronizing and not helpful so listening for the whole person and leading with curiosity, not the need for this person to feel differently than they do is quite a muscle to flex. If we don’t learn better listening, we don’t develop the capacity to face the problems the world is facing today. Moreover, we can remember, from this practice of listening on the sidewalk, how much we need to also take the time to really connect to those closest to us.
Wilding: What are the qualities of a good listener? Why is it so important that we learn how to listen more effectively?
Ruble: Good listeners first and foremost know how to hear someone’s story while remaining calm and objective. If we don’t stay boundaried and calm we go into black and white thinking where one person is right and one person is wrong and now the conversation is one of power and might rather than human connection. But, if you grow the capacity to remain calm and prevent your body and brain from going into “danger” mode when someone disagrees with you, you will be able to lead with curiosity and inquisitiveness.
I don’t think I have to tell you why that is important. I remember one of our listeners had someone say the person they admired most in the world was Adolf Hitler. She was Jewish and her parents were gay. She stayed listening and was able to really understand why he admired Hitler and she felt liberated through the understanding, not angry. What she discovered was fascinating. First, he was young and had never heard of the holocaust. Second what he admired about Hitler was his charisma.
This young man was living on the street and in his mind, someone like Hitler could keep him safe from the harms he had been facing on the street and the abuses he suffered in his past. So she reflected back to him “You really admire people who you believe could make you feel safer in your life?” and just like that this young man and this listener have a connection.
Wilding: How can someone become a better listener with difficult people, especially if that’s their boss, clients, or colleagues?
Ruble: As adults, our brains have the capacity to hold nuance but so often we take differences personally and our nervous systems get hijacked. Work adds another layer of complexity because our livelihood is felt to be on the line. This is the place where I earn the money to feed and clothe myself so the link to a potential threat response in the nervous system is heightened. What to do about all this? First,practice calming your nerves before entering into any difficult dialogue. It is why mindfulness practice is such a zeitgeist right now.
When you are ready to engage, First, label the behavior that doesn’t work for you not the person. When you get an “ick” feeling from a boss, client or colleague ask yourself, “What do I want to feel when I am around this person?” Write it out. Next, only interact with them when you are prepared to be a steward for the feelings you want to be having.
Don’t forget, people are usually difficult for us because they trigger our own material. Even the jerkiest of colleagues provide us with opportunities to grow. So see if you can actively practice finding attributes about them you do like. Our negativity bias and triggers from the past may have us zeroing in on the thing that we are annoyed by. You just cannot trust everything your mind tells you. Stretch yourself out of the black and white thinking of “all good” “all bad” and actively see the whole person in this colleague of yours.
Finally, when you do sit down to talk (not on text message or email please) take absolutely nothing personal. Easier said than done but seriously, such an invaluable life skill. That sharp tone of voice, that one-upmanship in a meeting, that broken agreement….it is data, not death. There is possibility if we can listen with objectivity combined with kindness. There is virtually no possibility when we listen with reactivity and anger.
Wilding: What’s your vision for the future of Sidewalk Talk?
Ruble: Some exciting and big changes. We have gone in and done some one-off corporate trainings. Now we are doing corporate listening trainings combined with events on the sidewalk with the hope of leaving behind an intact Sidewalk Talk chapter put on regularly by that company.
It is great team building. We are also starting a couples listening project where couples come out and do some listening training with each other and then we hit the streets together. Novelty is really good for couples relationships. So is purpose and meaning. Finally, we are getting help doing some real data-driven impact studies. We see our impact on health, community, workplace productivity, and implicit bias. We are very excited to begin applying for larger grants to expand and start doing cross cultural listening tours through different cities around the globe.
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