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HomeLatest NewsPull up a chair: sidewalk talk delivers community connection

Pull up a chair: sidewalk talk delivers community connection

If you’ve walked along Manly Cove East Esplanade on a Sunday morning recently, you may have seen people sat on folding chairs, in pairs, facing each other, talking. A trial scheme has been taking place by the seafront on the second Sunday in August and September called Sidewalk Talk.

Sidewalk Talk is an outreach program that provides trained listeners who take time and hear what other people have to say in a non-judgemental framework. That discussion may include personal problems, social issues, or just someone seeking another person’s company for a chat.

Co-ordinator and facilitator Peter Coyle, a professional psychotherapist, explained the set-up to Manly Observer.

“Sidewalk Talk (SWT) is a volunteer lead, not-for-profit originating from San Francisco in 2015. The aim is to improve community by offering heart-centred, non-judgemental listening in connection.

“I am the founder/organiser of the Manly chapter for SWT and we had our first event on 13/8 at East Esplanade. We had five volunteers who had 12 meaningful conversations with talkers. In addition, we had lots of positive responses including three new volunteers.”

Sidewalk Talk volunteers who listen to people who wish to chat about life or personal problems. Photo: Alec Smart

Is Sidewalk Talk run by a religious organisation, or do people have to pay a fee to discuss their issues with the listeners?

“There is no religious, political, financial or any other affiliations or agendas. It’s a very simple concept – trained listeners sit in a chair waiting on someone to talk with them. Northern Beaches Council have given us approval to use the East Esplanade for this purpose for two trials. From there, we aim to have a regular event every second Sunday between 9-12pm (as we build listener volunteers), and then eventually 9-3pm.”

This reporter paid a visit to the Manly Cove promenade to see the set-up and meet Peter and the team. Over the course of three hours, a variety of people paused to engage with the volunteers and discuss issues affecting them.

“The whole idea is the simplicity of it all,” Peter explained. “There’s not a lot of structures, you just see a few chairs and a few handmade signs… Anyone can come and sit down and have a chat.

“We’re even a little bit hesitant about wearing T-shirts, because then it becomes a structure, rather than the idea of two people talking to each other, which is which is what we’re trying to achieve – nothing more, nothing less.”

Is Sidewalk Talk geared more towards people who might be going through grief or otherwise feeling a bit down?

“I think those sort of people will gravitate to having a chat,” Peter considered. “But someone could come and talk about the weather, or perhaps they want to talk about themselves. We’ve had visitors from overseas who are a little bit homesick, who have been over here for a while, a long way from home, and they just want to talk about their family. You know, that sort of stuff.”

Peter Coyle, coordinator of Sidewalk Talk trained listeners. Photo: Alec Smart

He continued, “some want to talk about what it was like during the COVID pandemic, how they responded during the lockdowns and social isolation. And others just want to talk about the weather or have a chat – maybe they feel a little bit lonely, a bit isolated, and just need a good face-to-face conversation…

“We don’t try and focus on any particular type of person. Just a place to sit down in the sun and have a chat, that’s all we’re providing.”

How did Peter come to volunteering his time and skills listening to strangers when he could be charging a fee in his professional capacity as a psychotherapist?

“The concept of connection and listening has been something that I’ve always been passionate about,” he said. “I’ve always thought you can create connections through the process of listening, rather than talking all the time.

“I was looking at not-for-profit organisations for a way of actually doing that when I stumbled across Sidewalk Talk in the United States, which has been around awhile operating in lots of different cities.”

Sidewalk Talk’s website explains their foundations: “It all started in the Fall of 2014 when two San Francisco-based therapists, heart-broken by growing loneliness, violence, and inequality, decided to create spaces of connection and belonging – on the sidewalks. On May 7, 2015, twenty eight listeners took to the streets…

“Sidewalk Talk is the only listening project that is creating ongoing communities of listeners, who are trained to listen as equals, equipped with skills to intervene in a crisis, and supported by a background-checked leader.”

Sidewalk Talk’s primary focus is on alleviating loneliness and bringing people together. The American founders reveal “chronic loneliness and disconnection lead to heart disease and early death, increases in depression and anxiety, social polarization, and increases in impulsive and violent behaviour. We are all touched directly and indirectly by the effects of loneliness.”

Traci Ruble, American founder of Sidewalk Talk.

Peter continued, “I saw that they weren’t doing anything in Australia, so I thought, ‘well, they’ve got a process, they’ve got a structure, a reliable method on how they operate,’ and I decided I’d follow that process here.

“I got a hold of Traci Ruble, who founded Sidewalk Talk, and told her I would like to set it up as a chapter in Australia, and she said, ‘fine, do that’.”

Does he give advice to people in trouble?

“It’s very clear that we don’t give advice,” Peter asserted. “That’s fundamental to SWT. Every conversation is a confidential conversation. It’s just between the two people and it’s non-judgmental, so you can talk about whatever you like…

“Sometimes, someone may say something that might be offensive, right? But we put that to one side, because they are the most important thing. It’s not really what they are saying per se, it’s creating that connection.”

Peter has since attracted several other volunteers to his community-focused initiative. Among them is Birgit, a professional life coach who works in the corporate world. She stopped on Manly Esplanade to talk, out of curiosity, and is now considering offering her life skills as a Sidewalk Talker volunteer.

Birgit told Manly Observer, “I live nearby, around the corner. I saw them set up and at first I thought, ‘what are these people doing here, sitting outside in the cold breeze?’ And then I saw the signs and thought this is fantastic, just a great initiative… Share your issues with someone and that someone just listens to you.

“We need more of this community stuff happening, where people feel free and welcome to have a good chat. Especially after COVID with the slow consequence of recovering from the health issues of the pandemic. It’s amazing, just what the world needs at the moment.

“This is also the best spot of Manly,” she added. “The Esplanade is so beautiful a walkway!”

Sidewalk Talk, the trained listeners who sit on the East Esplanade on Manly Cove seafront and listen to people who wish to chat about life or personal problems. Photo: Alec Smart

Northern Beaches Council have given Sidewalk Talk the go-ahead to continue on Manly Cove Esplanade. Peter is hopeful of spreading the love. He summed up the motivation: “Really, it’s a movement rather than a charity or a not-for-profit, a way to create community through connection.”​

Sidewalk Talk: https://www.sidewalk-talk.org/

Peter Coyle: www.petercoyle.co  Phone: 0411 512 390

The next Sidewalk Talk takes place on Sunday 8 October between 9am – midday on Manly Cove East Esplanade. 


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Manly Observer is an experiment in providing non-sensationalist hyperlocal news on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. We cover the big news across the LGA, but with a hyper focus on the Manly electorate encompassing Balgowlah, Seaforth, Freshwater, Brookvale and Curl Curl up to Dee Why. It is run by those living in the community for the benefit of an informed community. We care about an informed and connected community. That’s it. Simple. Thank you for your support in keeping quality local news alive!

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