Psychotherapy clients ask me all the time, “Don’t you get tired of hearing so many people’s sob stories and complaining?” I have yet to feel tired. Sure, some days are long, and being a therapist requires a level of attention that is taxing, but never in my 13 years of working with psychotherapy clients have I ever felt “tired of someone’s experience,” or judged their pain as “annoying complaining.”
So much in the asking of that question is about the inner work of the person asking it. What they really might be saying is, “Am I worthy of being listened to? Do I matter? Do you care about me? Am I too much for you? Am I special?” I am grateful for my own growth in listening, and genuine feelings of care and non judgement for my clients.
Listening with relational presence is an act that helps everyone. I feel liberated from my own ego and find peace, clarity, and belonging when I remember to slow down, softly gaze at another person, let go of all my judgements or ideas about living, and intentionally listen to hear the soul of this person coming through in their words, tone, and body posture. And the other person feels like they matter, like they belong. Polyvagal theory tells us that belonging calms our nerves and supports mental wellness.
Sidewalk Talk, co-created with Lily Sloane in 2014, and now produced by me, Traci Ruble, was born from the need to channel my outrage at injustice and foster belonging among people who are different, visibly on the streets, where others might join in. So much of the kind of listening done in therapy is radical and counterculture in the best possible way. It isn’t always comfortable, it isn’t always linear, and there is no consumed product. But it does promote wellness and happiness and it can be offered freely.
Courage. It takes a lot of courage to listen hard and real. It is easier to categorize someone as “the other” rather than offering up the kind of attentiveness that communicates “you belong.” When I practice this kind of listening, I am not riding above the emotional fray, better than or healthier than the person I am listening to. Rather, this listening puts my feet right in the emotional soup with people who are sharing their joy or grief, anger or empowerment. My body hums with a sense of “What must it be like to be in that experience?” I feel a deep sense of belonging, connection, and purpose when I inhabit this kind of listening presence and flow.
When I first started talking to others about my desire to put chairs on streets to listen, many people dismissed the idea. “It will be dangerous.” “You will only get crazy homeless people.” “This is a therapeutic ethical violation.” “You are just doing this for self promotion.” “This is just your white guilt and white saviorism.” “You aren’t smart enough or know enough about different sub cultures.” etc. I did my best to practice “listening” to those voices openly. And my conviction was too strong to side with these “nay sayers” — at least not enough to stop me. I get support from friends who listen to my fear when I get scared, because I do. Also I remember that this project was an inspired act much larger than myself.
I can’t pretend to know what it is like to be you or to know what you have gone through, nor do I want to assume what the media might have told me about you or avoid you because your story might make me uncomfortable. Please, make me uncomfortable. I am okay with hearing what you have to share. Widening my ears to hear marginalized voices and marginalized feelings makes my life richer beyond measure. It helps me widen my own ears toward myself. It is because of this truth that Sidewalk Talk and deep listening are here to stay and this project will continue. I challenge you to join me for Mental Health Awareness month and try putting down your phone one day and say hello to people you encounter. Smile. Ask them how their day is going and mean it. See what happens. I think you will be surprised.