‘Listening circles’: a movement that is gathering pace worldwide

A ‘listening circle’ has been launched in London following the Brexit vote, becoming part of a growing worldwide movement

capture-decran-2016-11-23-a-14-49-30In these turbulent political times, we need to create more space for listening, believes social entrepreneur Sofia Bustamante. A strong feeling of disillusionment around the UK’s Brexit vote prompted her to run a ‘listening cafe’ in August: “I saw that the social divide was making people more anxious than usual and I wanted to do something to help them feel heard,” she explains. “Some people didn’t feel safe enough to express their views.”

Bustamante is a facilitator and coach who set up London Creative Labs in 2009 to help individuals find meaningful work. After having the idea of a listening cafe, she issued an impromptu call-out and eight people turned up to the first session at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, south London. Though a small start, messages of support were sent from across the country and more than 200 people quickly joined the Facebook group she set up.

capture-decran-2016-11-23-a-14-42-58During the session, attendees divided into two groups and discussed basic rules for good listening. Each then spoke for four minutes, with a minute’s silence between each, before a free flowing conversation. Subjects aired included loneliness, financial precarity, the need for intimacy, the joy of human connection, a desire to play more and frustration stemming from parking tickets.

“Listening is an act of kindness,” agrees Bustamante, who plans to repeat the Brixton event each month “When we feel heard and have time and space to hear others, we feel connected, safe and accepted.”

She is tapping into a movement that is gathering pace worldwide.

Sidewalk Talk sees therapists offer their ear for free on high streets in the US, while another free listening project, Urban Confessional, is now active in 50 countries, including Pakistan and Peru.


When Benjamin Mathes founded Urban Confessional in 2012, his goal was to heal through the power of listening.

capture-decran-2016-11-23-a-14-49-44The project dispatches volunteers into cities to simply listen to passersby who want to talk to someone. Four years since its creation, Urban Confessional has expanded to 16 different countries, providing a free listening service to allow the public to be heard. On his website, Mathes identifies himself as a coach, an actor, an author, as well as a listener.

“Every time you share something, whether it’s good news or bad news, and someone takes the time to hear it, it kind of makes you feel complete,” Mathes said.

Plus, the benefits of the project are twofold, since the volunteers say that they are also positively impacted by actively listening.

“In practicing the muscle of listening to other people, I practice that same muscle for listening to myself,” Nylda Ria Mark, an Urban Confessional volunteer, said.


In Fall of 2014, Psychotherapists Lily Sloane of Lily Sloane Therapy and Traci Ruble of Psyched in San Francisco joined forces because they shared a vision: to help heal that which divides us through the fine art of skilled listening on the streets of San Francisco.

capture-decran-2016-11-23-a-14-50-18Immediately after our first event we were contacted by Brooke Dooley  producer of the film Listen who wanted to bring Sidewalk Talk to the streets of LA before the end of Mental Health Awareness Month. On May 26th, just a few weeks later, Sidewalk Talk LA was born which grabbed the attention of the Los Angeles mayor’s office and the LA Times. 

Traci Ruble and the team at Psyched in San Francisco are now producing Sidewalk Talk while Lily focuses her energies on her new podcast, A Therapist Walks Into a Bar. What makes Sidewalk Talk a unique endeavor is that over 80% of our listener volunteers are psychotherapists, psychologists or mental health care workers.  Often times when folks sit down and talk it is the very first time they have ever come in contact with a therapist.


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