Why I Sit on the Streets and Listen to Strangers

I volunteer for a global movement called Sidewalk Talk. We set up chairs in the streets and offer to listen to passers by. We don’t solve problems. We don’t give advice. We simply offer non-judgemental, empathic listening; the opportunity to sit with a stranger and be heard. 

Newcastle is at 55°N latitude. We had one warm, sunny outing about 18 months ago but most of the time it’s freezing. We often take our chairs to a city centre square where the folk who have nowhere else to go hang out on park benches. There was a fatal stabbing in the same spot a couple of months ago.

Not exactly cosy. So why do I go back time and time again?

The answer, it seems, is not what I thought when I embarked on this…..

The Power of Listening in Coaching

I originally trained in a client-centred coaching approach, based on Carl Rogers’ principle that if we hold our clients in ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ they can largely solve their own problems. Later, I was deeply inspired by Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment and her concept of ‘generative attention.’ Personal experience with countless clients testified to these approaches; there is a profoundly simple power in listening to bring about change. 

For several years, though, I had a growing sense that my work wasn’t REALLY making a difference in the world. It started as a mild sense of unease, maybe even distaste at the ‘privilege’ of the sphere I was working in. Every client that actually makes it to coaching (or indeed any listening service) has overcome huge social, psychological and financial barriers. How many thousands or even millions were there for whom these barriers were simply insurmountable?

Giving Back

Then one day in 2017 Sidewalk Talk appeared in my social media feed. I watched a TED-style talk by the amazing founder, Traci Ruble. I was gripped. Maybe Sidewalk Talk was the thing I was looking for – a chance to give something back. 

Observing reactions to global events added to my restlessness. I often found myself thinking about the universal human pain that lies behind every act of greed, blame, hatred and violence. Whether in our homes, workplaces, political systems or street gangs are we not all just hurting human beings trying to protect ourselves? Even our economy, based on growth, fuels a striving for more. We fill the gaping holes in our hearts with perceived success, wealth, and more stuff.  What would it be like to live in a world where we were OK as we were? Maybe if there was more listening without judgement we could lessen some of the pain?  Maybe I could contribute to positive change in the world by bringing Sidewalk Talk to Newcastle….

So, I threw myself into it with altruistic intent. I would ‘do good’ in the world. 

What I wasn’t anticipating, though, was the ‘good’ the world would do in me…

Getting Back

Having done about 25 of these outings now, I’ve come to recognise a repeating pattern in the effect they have on me. In the hours leading up to an event I feel a mounting sense of apprehension. I’ve created stories to explain this away – mostly about how many pulls there are on my time and if I was being kind to myself I’d stop taking things like this on. Then, as I’m arriving and we’re setting up our chairs, the stories morph into fears of judgement and rejection – the other volunteers probably think I’m a flaky event organiser; nobody is going to want to sit down with me; what we’re doing is crazy. 

Then we start.  And this amazing thing happens.  

As I reach out to passing strangers; as I practice genuine acceptance when people give us a wide berth or turn our offer down; as I sit with someone who hasn’t washed for weeks and battle with a rising physical repulsion to the odour; as I listen with curiosity to someone who passionately shares opinions with which I strongly disagree, I start to soften towards myself. As I practice holding non-judgemental space and accepting the human being in front of me, they give the same back to me. In the act of listening I also feel heard. I am not judged. I am OK. 

I return home exhilarated. 

The magic of human-human connection

It is a deeply humbling experience to connect with a stranger in this way. I am blown away by the beauty, pain, humour, vulnerability, creativity, wisdom and compassion in their stories.  How easy it would be to despair if I only focused on the suffering they tell of.  But there is hope in the magic of human-to-human connection. 

They say that we teach what we need to learn. I am learning more about myself through Sidewalk Talk than I have through most of the professional CDP programmes that I have attended put together. Certainly I am discovering that I not the superhuman ‘empath’ that I aspired to be. It turns out I am just a hurting human being.  And listening to another human being has incredible healing power. It also turns out, that heart-centred listening is not a capability. It is a practice. Likewise becoming human.  So, it seems, it is not such an altruistic endeavour I’ve embarked on after all. Perhaps, in fact, there is a perfectly imperfect, human selfishness in it too. 

And yes, sometimes there aren’t so many people who choose to sit down with us, but as one of our volunteers so beautifully put it: Our success is not how many people we listen to. Our success is that we are here. 

Find out more about the global Sidewalk Talk movement and our HEAR programme for organisations on our website, or contact me at swtnewcastle@gmail.com.