What do you say to a group of homeless 10-to-17-year-olds living with their single mothers at one of the largest homeless shelters in the country, in one of the most drug and crime infested parts of Los Angeles?
That was my challenge when entrepreneur, Christopher Kai, asked me to come speak at Mondays at the Mission at the Union Rescue Mission. “You’ll be great with these kids,” he said. “Just do something to inspire them.”
I thought to myself, “What the heck do I tell teenagers who are living in one of the worst situations imaginable, many personally affected by filth, crime, rape, mental illness and drugs?” I decided to follow my own advice from Just Listen, which has a chapter about calming yourself down, called “Oh F#%^ to Okay.” I reminded myself to first notice…and then just listen.
In this calmer state, the first thing I noticed was the Skid Row section of Los Angeles that surrounded me, which triggered flashbacks of my visit to Mumbai and Delhi years before. It struck me that while the poverty in Mumbai and Delhi easily dwarfed Los Angeles, the Indians had seemed noticeably happier. The people I saw before me were anything but happy, and looked as if they were barely surviving. While I had seen plenty of Indians who were barely surviving, there was a kind of bond there, a deeper connection, that I didn’t see here.
Each homeless person I saw in L.A. was trying to stake out their 10-15 square feet of space, which was marked by an unfolded sleeping bag, or maybe a shopping cart for the more fortunate ones. I didn’t remember ever seeing such fiercely guarded territoriality among the throngs of homeless in India.
As I entered the Union Rescue Mission, it seemed like an oasis in the middle of an entirely rundown and desperate area. Walking down a corridor to the 4th floor Rec Room where I was scheduled to speak, I saw single mothers corralling their children so they wouldn’t wander too far. Early evening was approaching and there was danger everywhere.
I’d arrived early, before their team of impassioned and compassionate volunteers, just as the first few teens were coming in. They seemed well-schooled in etiquette, as each one came up to me, shook my hand and told me their name, some of which I repeated back to them since it was hard for me to understand them.
The entrepreneur and founder of this program, Chris Kai, came in to deliver a brief orientation. All of this was voluntary, he said. Anyone who didn’t want to be there, or wanted to be disruptive, could go back to their rooms with their moms.
As I quietly looked and listened, I couldn’t help but feel the fear, pain and sadness in the group behind their “game faces.” Chris was doing a great job of pumping them up, but I still had no clue what I would say to them when my turn came.
I suddenly recalled a sermon the day before by Pastor Jimmy Bartz at THAD’s, an inclusive Episcopal church with the simple mantra of living in the “God love life.”
He’d shared the story of Anna Runs America, where Anna Judd had run across America to draw attention and support for foundations supporting veterans. Pastor Jimmy had asked Anna how she’d managed to persevere in running literally cross country and not quit. Anna had explained that she’d focus on looking at things she passed as if it were the first time she’d ever opened her eyes and seen anything.
That reminded me of something my late (and dearly missed) mentor, Warren Bennis, used to say: “Try to be a first class noticer.” By that Warren meant that noticing is different than watching, looking and seeing. When you notice something, it takes you out of your internal experience (and anxiety) and bonds you with something outside of yourself that you then become curious about and connect with.
Not knowing where it would lead, but “noticing, listening and feeling my way into these teens,” I began to talk about noticing, and how it can take you away from feeling very upset inside.
I proposed the following exercise: “Close your eyes for ten seconds and pretend you have lost the ability to see. When you open them, feel the excitement as if you are ‘seeing’ for the first time, and then ‘notice’ something you hadn’t noticed before.”
After closing their eyes for ten seconds, they opened them and, one by one, shared something they noticed. One girl said she noticed a crack in the wall she hadn’t seen before. Another girl noticed a clock in the room that wasn’t moving. I also had the six volunteers try the exercise. I asked them if it had taken away some of their upset feelings inside, even if only for a few moments. They all agreed it had.
Enter Surgical Empathy.
Surgical Empathy looks out at the world and sees people who too often are filled with hurt, fear and anger that remains stuck inside them. By going into those dark places and enabling people to speak from them, especially in a group, something amazing happens. Instead of worse, people feel less alone, they often begin to cry with relief and that often causes them to be able to calm down and take constructive actions to make their situations and lives better.
I then told them that, as a psychotherapist who works with very sad, very frightened and very angry people, I had learned to look deeply into my patients’ eyes and focus on noticing that there was probably something going on underneath what they were saying or doing. I explained that I’d learned to hold onto people’s eyes with my eyes and silently say: It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to judge you. Just tell me where it hurts most (or is most scary) and how much.
I told these teens why I’d needed to develop this skill — many of the people I’d seen over the years, especially the ones who didn’t want to live, didn’t have words to tell me what they felt.
I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but this seemed to have taken on a life of its own. I just let it take me where it wanted to.
The next thing I did was look into and lock onto the eyes of ten of the teenagers one by one with the look I described above. When I did that, even with these brief glances, I was struck by the fear, confusion and pain I picked up coming from each of them.
That led me to direct them to do a second exercise. I told them to pair up and look into each other’s eyes the way I had looked into theirs. I told them that I was going to have one person ask the other a particular question, and then I instructed the other person to answer it as honestly as they could. And while they were answering it, I told the first person to look into their eyes with caring as if they were saying, “It’ll be okay to tell me. I’m not going to laugh or get angry at you.” After they did that, they were to reverse roles.
I next instructed the first one to ask their partner, “What’s the toughest thing about your life?”
At that point more than a few of their partners began to cry. The volunteers and I stepped in where necessary to reinforce that it was okay and safe to answer, whereupon several teenagers answered with emotion in their voice, “being here.” I noticed and felt the room flex into a different energy that was calmer, kinder and more caring and relieving.
I went with the flow because something told me inside that we weren’t finished. I next told them they had a homework assignment. I said that when I had first walked into the Rec Room, I’d noticed how many of the moms in the corridor seemed upset or tense.
“Now that you’ve practiced this exercise in here, I want you to go out, and don’t do this immediately, but pick a time when you’re with your mom and say to her, ‘Mom, what’s the toughest part of being here for you?'”
I explained, “Some of your mothers also need to feel relief and will start crying, especially because of how afraid and ashamed they are of being here. Crying will be good for your moms and good for you. And if your moms cry, don’t get nervous. Because you’re actually showing love and caring for them.”
Finally, I want you to let your moms cry and then reach out and hug them and say, ‘It’s okay mom. We’re going to be okay and I love you.'”
That got a lot of the room tearing up, just as it’s doing to me as I share this story with you.
Finally I told them, “For some of you this may be one of the best conversations you’ve ever had with your mom. And for some of you and your moms, it may even change your lives for the better.”
Now here’s a homework assignment for those of you who have read this far.
Reach out to someone you care about who is having a very rough time in their life, look into their eyes with all the love and caring you can muster and say to them, “Mind if ask you a question which is kind of personal, that’s been on my mind lately?” Hopefully they’ll say, “Okay.”
Then ask them, “What’s the toughest part of your life right now?” If they open up, make it a chance for them to get a lot off their chest by just noticing the most emotionally charged words they use: “awful, horrendous, scary” etc. Wait for them to finish, pause for a couple of seconds so they’ll feel what they’ve said has sunk in with you, and keep looking into their eyes with a “I want to know how and what you’re feeling just so you don’t have to feel it alone” look.
If it feels right, you can use “conversation deepeners” (which I also describe in my book Just Listen) like: “Say more about awful (horrendous, scary, etc.)”; or pause after they finish, and in an inviting, empathetic tone just say, “Really…”
If you do the above homework assignment, I hope you’ll register at our site and report back in the comments on what your experience was like, because you have just joined the mission of our global community, Heartfelt Leadership: “Healing the world one conversation at time, by daring to care.”
And if you if you’d like to join our campaign to heal the world, one conversation at a time (by using the “Conversation Catalysts” we are creating to get them started) we’d greatly appreciate it because there is so much that needs to be healed.
(Greatful appreciation for editorial assistance to Peter Petro)