A few weeks ago I received an email from Gift Health explaining that they were looking for volunteer listeners for a Mental Health Awareness Week campaign, the Listening Project Brighton.

This idea started in San Francisco as Sidewalk Talk, and Gift Health were bringing it to Brighton, right in the middle of the Brighton Festival.

What is the Listening Project Brighton?

The premise is very simple: two chairs, one for the listener and one for a passer by who wants to be listened to. All I had to do was

  • turn up
  • wear the You Talk We Listen t-shirt
  • lay out some posters
  • invite some strangers to come and talk to me

The organisers described the Listening Project Brighton as their gift to the community of Brighton and Hove. The intention was to create spaces around the city for talking and listening, supporting emotional health. They also hoped that the project might go some way towards countering any reputation that therapy might have of being scary or intimidating. The email said,

“This project aims to promote the process of reaching out to those who need to talk, relieving some of the pressure and anxiety associated with first engagement.”

Well I am always keen to do what I can to help demystify counselling and therapy, so I signed up right away.

So on Saturday, in the rain, I turned up at the meeting place. I met the other volunteers and pulled the You Talk We Listen t-shirt on over my rain jacket. Then I went, with my two chairs, to the location I had been assigned. It was the University of Sussex campus, where we set up outside the library. I was actually a little disappointed at first, because the other volunteers were all among the hustle and bustle of the city centre: at the Queen’s Head, Brighthelm Gardens, the Komedia, Duke Street, the Pavilion Gardens Cafe, and even on Brighton Pier.

The Listening Project at Sussex University, Brighton

However, once we got up there and got started, I realised quite what a gift it was to take The Listening Project Brighton to the steps of the University library right in the middle of exam season.

Keen to get people’s attention, I stood up and asked passers-by, “would you like to be listened to?” A few people looked at me strangely or nervously scooted away, but others showed signs of curiosity. Some stopped to read the posters and ask more about it. When anyone seemed interested, I invited them to take a seat, come and talk to me (“about what?!” “about anything!”), and I would listen.

It was a really fascinating experience. I heard a lot about exam stress, and the impact on friendships and other relationships when it feels like everyone is going through their own stressful time at once. People told me about their frustrations with the higher education system, and their political and philosophical ideas. I heard about what it’s like to be getting ready to go home again after a few months getting to know an alien culture.

After about ten minutes, the organisers had told us to ask “what was it like being listened to today?” and then “Is there anyone else in your life you could listen to like this, to pass this on?”

The Value of Being Listened To

Every single one of those I had listened to said it had been a good experience. Most of them expressed having been surprised at just how good it felt. This should come as no surprise to me really! I do this for a living because I believe in the power of being heard, and see its capacity for healing every week. But there was something about offering this experience to people who weren’t expecting it, and really didn’t know what to expect from it, that shone a new light on it for me. Just being really, properly listened to is such a simple but powerful thing.

To the second question too: everyone I listened to was keen to go and tell someone about their experience, and offer to do the same for them. And that for me was the best thing about this project. And also why I feel it fit in especially well with this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, which was relationships.

Because sometimes clients tell me that they worry that coming to counselling, spending that time and money on themselves, is selfish. Or that reflecting on their experiences – on themselves – will make them self-centred. However, in my experience, quite the opposite is true.

Passing on the Benefits of Being Listened To

When we are truly listened to, and supported by a professional counsellor in making sense of our worlds, two things happen. One is that, just like with The Listening Project Brighton, we feel the power of the experience. We become keen to pass it on, to become better listeners. And to have deeper and more meaningful conversations with the other people in our lives. The other is that through the process of therapy we come to see things more clearly. This makes us more willing and more able to make changes in our lives, to live more authentically. And this too – though rarely easy – often brings changes that ultimately deepen our relationships.

Has reading about the Listening Project Brighton got you wondering how you could benefit from being truly listened to? If you’re interested you can email me here or give me a call on 07428 396671. You can also join my mailing list here.


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