Ten years ago, a group of broke actors took to the streets in Los Angeles. With no political agenda or apparent cause, they armed themselves with cardboard signs that read, “free listening.” These actors were fed up with what they saw as a cultural crisis: we don’t listen to one another. The idea was simple….start a movement of people who take to the streets to make others feel seen, heard, and loved, not through the projection of words or ideas but through the genuine care required to listen to what someone has to say.
“BEING HEARD IS SO CLOSE TO BEING LOVED THAT MOST PEOPLE CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE.”Urban Confessional
I learned about this movement from an acting professor in college who challenged me to try it out. I found my way to a busy part of New Orleans for several weeks and held up my “free listening sign.” As people ventured up to ask what I was doing, there was a genuine shock when I shared, “I’m just here to listen. Do you have anything you’d like to share?”. As people poured out their anxieties, breakup details, and deepest fears – I was shocked by how willing people seemed to open up. I noticed my co-dependent, fixer tendencies boil up as I desperately wanted to advise or help these people walk through their issues. But the intention was clear, don’t fix. Simply listen.
Here’s what I learned from this powerful experience:
- Genuine curiosity is the key ingredient to good listening
Getting outside of ourselves to genuinely care what someone else has to say. This is, in my opinion, the biggest impediment to creating a culture of listening. Have you ever been in a conversation where someone started out shy, but once you found that thing they love to talk about, everything changed? Finding someone’s passion and genuinely caring to learn about it will create dynamic conversations and allow you to learn something new from everyone you meet.
- We have a human impulse to feel seen and heard.
MLK Jr. called a riot “the voice of the unheard.” The more I learn about human nature, the more true this feels. We all want to feel seen and do whatever it takes to make that a reality. Some of us seek it on social media, create art, or call our best friend. We don’t feel seen by being spoken at; we feel seen when someone is willing to hold our words precious and make us feel like what we have to say matters.
- Good listening is an art form.
As a speaker, we all know the difference between when someone’s listening to respond vs. listening to truly listen. When we listen from a place of presence, our response flows organically. When listening well, the thinking brain will be virtually unnoticeable. Other elements, like eye contact, sound utterance, and facial expressions, all aid in the practice of listening. Using them appropriately can create a more fluid space for loving conversation and an authentic connection.
Embrace the practice:
My “Free Listening” experience started me on a journey of intentional listening. In my career – I interview people for a living, seeking to create spaces for others to show up authentically. Connection isn’t created because someone was impressed by what I said, it happens because someone feels like I genuinely care what they have to say. I still notice my attention drifting in conversations with loved ones or responding before someone’s finished speaking. In those moments, I remind myself to simply be in the practice.
Every conversation is an opportunity to make someone feel seen and heard. The beautiful thing is when someone feels heard, and they are so much more inclined to lend the same respect to you. The result is a genuine sense of connection, healthier relationships, and an indescribable feeling of love that makes life worth living.