After four years, the wait is finally over – “free listening” made its debut earlier today in Post Office Park, in Portland, Maine.  The premise is simple – I set up a couple of chairs in a visible location in the park, posted a sign offering “Free Listening & Free Advice (if desired)…donations accepted”, and waited for takers (see photo).  If there’s  ever been a case study in why the “ready, fire, aim” approach works, my experience today was it, for the actual experience of sitting in the park and listening (and advising) passers-by was WAY different than how I had been imagining it for the past four years.

offering free listening and advice in post office park, portland maine

Let me start by saying that I did have some willing talkers – fewer than I had hoped for, but SOME.  While the people who sat down (all men, with the exception of one woman) all seemed initially to be participating mostly for curiosity’s sake, by the end of the time we shared (generally about 10-15 minutes per person) it seemed that our conversation had been genuinely beneficial.  My intention WAS to actually be helpful to people, through listening and providing feedback when desired – not just to pursue some novel idea (though that was certainly part of what motivated me).  So I was pretty psyched to have these random people, who sat down not knowing what to expect (just like I had no idea what to expect), thanking me for the time – in many cases, just for listening to them for that quarter of an hour.  It all would start with my asking “so, what would you like to talk about?” – simple enough, but establishing that the next 15 minutes would be all about whatever this person wanted them to be about.

So here are some of the things that I learned, and things I’ll be pondering before my next outing:

  1. Passers-by are generally traveling in twos (and greater numbers). Since I only had one chair, that meant that most of the people who walked by, while they read my sign and generally offered a smile and/or words of encouragement, weren’t really in a position to sit down and talk. Their companions would have had to wait for them or move on without them, which is something unlikely to happen, I suspect. However, I did think that it might be helpful to have TWO empty chairs, so I would at least have the opportunity to invite couples to sit down together for a joint listening session.
  2. Let’s face it – some guy sitting there willing to listen for free is kinda unusual. I’m willing to bet that if I go to the park more regularly and people get used to seeing me, that it might mitigate the “strangeness” factor. As it was, it was DEFINITELY the right call to be dressed more “formally”, and to have some flowers to warm up the vibe. I was thinking that it would be cool to have enough flowers so that I could give one out to each person who sat down – but I don’t think that our perennial garden could support that for too long. I ended up putting the flowers under the windshield wipers of cars parked in the area when I packed up – which gave me another idea – searching for cars with parking tickets, and placing flowers next to the parking tickets to help alleviate whatever pain the illegally-parked might be going through. Might need to get a flower shop to donate the stems for that endeavor.
  3. This will probably not yield many results, in terms of people helped or dollars donated. Towards the end of the afternoon, I did start to pick up a little more steam, with more and more people interested in sitting down. Most of the people who decided to try out the free listening were folks who hang out in the park regularly – in other words, they have some idle time, though probably not a lot of idle cash. In fact, I ended up placing my timer in front of the “donations accepted” portion of the sign, as I realized that my presence there was more about listening to people than it was about making a few dollars. Not that a few dollars wouldn’t hurt, of course. But I didn’t want my motives to seem suspect – at least not in my first outing.
  4. I should wear layers. A slightly cloudy day with an ocean breeze was all it took for me to feel fairly hypothermic after a couple hours. A sweater and hat would have worked wonders. Enough said.
  5. It would be helpful to have a friend swing by every so often. By the end of the afternoon, I REALLY had to “drain the dragon” (um…pee). My setup isn’t easy to carry around with me – and I didn’t want to risk anything getting stolen – so I was pretty much stuck. Combined with how cold I was, the entire physical experience got a bit distracting. In fact, one of my friends (the amazing astrologer and life path interpreter Larry Averill – stay tuned for his blog) did cruise by, but it was pretty early in the afternoon, long before I had consumed a full liter of water (yikes). I’m fairly certain that a big wet spot on my slacks would diminish my credibility.
  6. Always, always, always set the timer. I’ll admit it, it’s weird to have someone sit down in front of you for a heart-to-heart conversation and immediately set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes (which is actually quite a bit of time, I discovered). But it’s really the only way to politely keep from having my time monopolized. One guy sat down saying “oh, I only have one question for you, and this will only take a minute” – and I took his word for it. 15 minutes later, I realized my mistake. No biggie, I just had to use the art of conversation to bring things to a close. But the dinging of a timer is a much easier way to deal with the situation.
  7. Yep, it’s confirmed – the human experience is universal. While I really would like to tell you more about the subject matter discussed, out of respect to the people who shared some rather personal experiences with me I’m going to hold off on getting into the specifics. Most of what we talked about centered around relationship and communication issues – breakups, love triangles, how to communicate honestly without getting “too deep” too quickly – you know, the kinds of things that we tend to think about on a regular basis. When asked for advice, I tended to hone in on what the individual in front of me really needed/wanted out of a given situation, and then we would talk about ways that they could provide that for themselves. All I did, I think, was ask directed questions that allowed people to talk about themselves, eventually getting to the heart of the matter. We all know within ourselves what we need most to hear – it’s just getting it out in the open that can sometimes be difficult.

Overall, the experience was very positive for me (and, I believe, for the people I met). While I look forward to spending a few more afternoons in the park, I think that ultimately I’ll be more effective through this website (plus it makes earning an income that much easier, as I can have advertisers instead of relying exclusively on donations).  In that spirit, if you have anything you’d like to talk about – drop me a line (neil at neilsattin dot com), and we’ll reserve a post just for YOU on this site.  Thanks for listening!  🙂

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