Random Acts Of Listening

As a result of various influences actually? But certainly as part of trying to develop work opportunities for myself, and importantly into more strategic areas of branding. (What motivates loyalty & trust. What tools are used to build a tribe. Why customers buy etc…) I have recently been speaking with 2 specialists in related areas: the 1st a Facilitator of Change Executive Coach Nick Heap, and also a Marketeer & Lecturer Roger Christiansen. Initially, this blog comes from Nick & me discussing how people are so often squirreled away in cyber-space; either on social media or wired up to youtube for example. Which can create a serious culture of isolation. And with the problem of shared community spaces at risk of closing all the time, this is increasingly concerning in society today. Nick & Roger respectively initiated and participated in Random Acts Of Listening. Here is their story:

To grow fellowship, mutual understanding, well-being and the wider community.

A small group go to a place where there are people, like a park or a shopping mall. There they split up and have conversations with people they don’t know and might not normally talk to. (Walking while talking often helps). The main activity is to listen and understand their worlds from their point of view. Then the group reconvenes to share experiences and think how to spread the practice.

When I was approached to be part of an adventure in Random Acts of Listening, I was intrigued. The idea is simple: approach random people you don’t know, engage them in conversation, and let them tell their story. It’s all part of a social movement to help people connect more, and reduced loneliness and feelings of isolation. And today a group of us met in Oxford City Centre and after a discussion about how to approach people, we all set off individually to try it out. I believe I am a confident networker and I’m used to talking to strangers at Marketing Events. So, how hard could it be?

Much harder than I was expecting. Identifying people to approach is fairly straightforward. Conversation starters were all around me. The couple staring at a map looking lost. The young lady in the card shop laughing at the Mother’s day cards. The man watching an impromptu performance in Cornmarket. The rough sleeper by the road. The man with the amazing hat. Engaging strangers in conversation takes some courage, and – I’m sorry to say – I bottled it several times. And then getting people to talk about themselves is also more difficult than I thought. My bright idea of approaching a Big Issue seller – normally talkative people with fascination stories – failed miserably. The guy could barely speak English.

At the outset one of the key things is to get over yourself. It was only after trying it out for myself that I realised what he meant. This really isn’t about yourself. It’s about making others comfortable enough so that they tell their stories. And what amazing stories our group had unearthed. From the man who was grieving for a loved one, to the old man wearing the same suit he had purchased in Oxfam years before as a student, to the alcoholic whose life had fallen apart unexpectedly.

It’s truly liberating taking the time to stop and watch the world go by. Normally when I’m in a City I’m rushing about with a purpose, trying to get to where I need to get to with minimal interference, often absorbed in a Smartphone. However if you just stop and look at the people, there’s a brave new world out there of amazing and fascinating people who maybe, just maybe, want to tell their story.

Personally I think Random Acts Of Listening is a great idea, and a step up perhaps of simply plonking oneself in unusual, sometimes edgy situations and just expecting stuff to happen. Furthermore, could this also work inside businesses (particularly large ones) to create community, break down silos and build teams? Does it already. Any comments, ideas or questions would be very welcome.