Listening takes time and a group in Boston is volunteering to hear what others have to say.
These "Free Listeners" can be seen standing in public areas like Boston Common with signs that offer their listening services at no cost. They are not offering up a conversation, only the promise that whoever is talking to them will be heard.
Anne Lafleur organized a Free Listening group in Boston earlier this year after being inspired by the Urban Confessional Project in Los Angeles, which has been engaging strangers in public for over four years.
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The conversations can range from idle chit chat with a listener to long one-sided talks that give the speaker a chance to unload their thoughts. Lafleur said that the topics can include politics, health, spirituality, life troubles, and everything in-between.
Lafleur said the goal of their listening is to offer another person unconditional love and humanity, even if it is only for a brief moment.
"Listening at its best to me is I am holding space for you to be and explore whatever it is that is on top for you right now so that you can get unstuck, figure out what’s next, just have a little dose of love and attention in your life."
The most important part of their listening efforts, and the most challenging, is the listening part. It is tempting to respond with advice or to contribute to the conversation, but that is not what this kind of listening is about. It is a simple reminder to the speaker that what they say has value and there is a place for them in the world.
"So often when we share stuff with other people, especially the hard stuff in our lives, it is so common for the person on their end of that to get anxious on their behalf," she said. "The very best listening has no agenda. I am not here to fix anybody or even to comfort anybody because I don’t know what anybody’s life is going to be like. But I can listen to them and I can support them and I can validate that their life matters."
The people doing the listening are as unique as the people they listen to. One of the Free Listener volunteers on the Boston Common this summer, Tori Clay, has been transitioning to a woman for about 15 months. Prior to her transition she said she was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide, but now she wants to share her new-found happiness with others.
"If someone is down and listening can help them and cheer them up, I think that is wonderful," said Clay.
She spent two hours listening to one man, a recovering addict, who was happy to have someone lend him an ear.
Another volunteer with Clay and Lafleur that day, Julie, is studying to be a music therapist. She was approached by curious people passing by who wanted to know what she was doing and some foreign tourists. Yet she was able to establish a real connection with one woman who approached her.
"She started telling me a few things about her day, about her life, some really personal things honestly It is kind of amazing to let someone just get stuff off their chest."
Julie said that true listening is letting go of judgments and pushing away any responses that might get in the way of the speaker. It is truly about being present in the moment.
"You really just have to be present, I think being present is a real difficult and worthwhile practice," she said.
Free Listening Boston currently has 43 members and goes out with their signs up (and ears open) a few times a month. For more information www.meetup.com/Free-Listening-Boston.