How Brexit helped spark a new listening project

Claudia Cahalane

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

In 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.

During 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.

Urban Confessional by Alicia Chandler

Members of the Urban Confessional project who voluntarily listen to the public. Image: Alicia Chandler

Bustamante has also taken to the streets, holding ‘free listening’ signs and offering strangers opportunities to be heard. 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.

Rachel King, a community mediator and therapist, is a fellow ‘free listener’. She tells how a young man who was “feeling very disillusioned by London life”, took the opportunity to discuss the particular responsibility that many young people feel. “He explained the pressure to perform and achieve, to produce results and pay rent and bills. He was hesitant at first, but then was delighted to talk.

“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.”

Bustamante has also been asked to facilitate a listening cafe for the NHS. In time, she hopes to develop an app that will encourage people to chart the number of new people they make the effort to listen to.

When we feel heard and have time and space to hear others, we feel connected, safe and accepted

Main image: Jacob Rushing

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