Many passers-by paid no attention, others took a furtive glance, some smiled and a few actually stopped to talk to a group of college students who were conducting an experiment Monday night on the Country Club Plaza.
The students held signs that simply said, “Want to talk? Free listening.”
One woman took the opportunity to share that her daughter was in a car accident that day, but she was OK.
Julie, who was celebrating her 20th birthday with friends, vented about her co-workers.
“I don’t judge them, but I feel like they judge me for my choices,” she said.
In an age of self-branding and self-promotion — with American culture swimming in a cacophonous sea of tweets and blogs, of Facebook and YouTube videos — Rockhurst University communications professor Laura Janusik sent her students onto the streets of the Plaza for one reason:
To listen to strangers.
Without judgment. Without advice. Without interrupting. About 18 students enrolled in Janusik’s listening class spread out in groups of three along 47th Street between 5:30 and 7 p.m., holding their signs promising friendly ears.
Janusik, a past president of the International Listening Association, hopes her students will come away from with a greater understanding of the inherent connection that comes with communing face-to-face rather than electronically.
Students Ally Rodriguez, Morgan Dye and Alexis Bolin caught the attention of a couple of high school foreign-exchange students from Brazil.
“Are we in Missouri right now?” asked Bruno, who in a brief conversation revealed that he wanted to buy some sunglasses and hoped some day to live in Colorado and teach snowboarding. They only have fake snow in Brazil, he said.
“What a nice idea,” a man heading into Barnes & Noble said upon seeing the sign held by Rockhurst students Allie Krumel, Meredith Larson and Laurie Murphy. “I hope you guys get lots of people.”
Up the sidewalk, an oblivious skateboarder rolled past students C.J. Durham, Andrew Klingler and Joshua Brannon.
Some of the students acknowledged being a little nervous at first, not knowing how people would react or whether they would think it was some kind of trick. They soon became comfortable with the experiment.
“I got a smile,” Rodriguez said. “That’s an accomplishment.”
A commuter who was killing time on the Plaza before heading home to Johnson County chatted several minutes with Rodriguez’s group about the weather and other topics.
Janusik, a researcher, teaches her listening course as part of Rockhurst’s business curriculum. The importance of active and deep listening can be seen in everything ranging from international diplomacy to doctor-patient relationships — in social work, customer and employee relations and the way parents and children listen to each other.
“What we know is that students are listening more today than they did in the past, but the listening they are doing is primarily through mediated messages,” Janusik said. “They are listening to radios and iPods and television and computers, but their face-to-face listening time has decreased drastically.”
Janusik plans to send her students out to the Plaza again next Monday to close out the last two weeks of her class. She said the inspiration to do so came from Urban Confessional. That grassroots movement began in Los Angeles in 2012 and has since been replicated in 20 cities across the United States and in 13 countries.
Actor Benjamin Mathes created Urban Confessional. In a telephone interview Monday, he said the idea struck him suddenly on a day when he was heading to acting class and had nothing to give a homeless man who had asked him for money.
“I don’t have any money, but I can pray for you,” Mathes told the man.
He listened to the man’s story.
“In the middle of the street, we prayed,” he said. “I thought that was a powerful connection.”
Active listening is a fundamental aspect of acting. “I thought free listening might be an equivalent,” he recalled. He conscripted some of his actor friends to take to the streets.
“I’m going to do this,” he told them. “Does anyone want to join me?”
What began as a tool for actors immediately grew into something far more meaningful — and communal.
“It starts to grow because we’re echoing something that people long for, that is to be heard,” Mathes said. “Our culture has become about speaking our minds and making ourselves known on social media. We have kind of mastered half of the art of communication. I think there is something in all of us who have the need to be received.”
Mathes said that strangersat first are reluctant to approach the people holding free listening signs. He said people always ask the same question: “What are you dong this for?”
“Our answer is always the same,” he said. “‘We’re doing it for you. We don’t record. We don’t take money.’ It blows their minds that there is no catch.”
What people reveal ranges from happy events to deeply personal trials.
“I will tell you what they don’t talk about,” Mathes said. “They don’t talk about politics. They tend to tell us about the personal struggles, or they talk but their relationships. Or they want to tell us good news. … When we listen to people, it validates who they are.”
Said Janusik: “At its core, listening is an act of service.”
Janusik emphasized that although her students have been taught the techniques of active listening, they are not there to act as amateur therapists or social workers.
“I would hope that their empathetic responses will be triggered,” Janusik said of her students. “I hope the person being listened to feel some support and connection.”