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Teddy Bear Talk Support (TBTS) is about getting to think better by thinking out loud. It's about creating opportunities for having a listener along for the ride who isn't "doing" much, while you talk out loud. The beauty of TBTS is that it's simple. It may not sound like much, but its effects can be profound and powerful.
TBTS was inspired by a story about a teddy bear:
- At a university computer center in the 1990s, there was a technical support help desk that had a teddy bear to greet you when you came for help. The rule was that before you could talk to an actual person, you had to first explain the problem you were having with your computer to the teddy bear. If talking to the teddy bear solved your problem, then you'd be on your way and you wouldn't have taken up any of the real people's time. Many problems fell in this category, and so the people who worked at this tech support help desk were able to save a lot of time this way.
Having another mind to think through things with is very valuable. There are plenty of cases where all that the other mind needs to provide is a forum for having you say things out loud to someone. You automatically bring yourself to the situation in a different way if there's someone else holding the space with you, even if they're not saying anything. As a result, you can hear yourself differently. What you have to say can unfold in a very different way.
After learning of the teddy bear story, I started thinking about how humans could serve as teddy bears. These "human teddy bears" would be operating in what I called "teddy bear mode," where they were only listening, or where they could also do a few other limited things, like ask open, honest questions, or make guesses about what seemed important.
What might you talk to these human teddy bears about? Of course, you can talk to a teddy bear about something they are knowledgeable about. But, as we saw with the tech support help desk story, because teddy bears aren't asked to do much, they can also help with things they don't know about. So, you can even talk to a teddy bear about:
- something you know a lot about, but the teddy bear doesn't
- something you're not the expert in, and you're pretending the teddy bear is wiser about
For example, the bullet points below could all be examples of any of the bullet points above:
- purchasing something
- navigating choppy waters with co-workers or family members
- dealing with a small task that has been a thorn in your side
- handling a major life issue
But, why would you want to talk to someone who might not be able to follow closely what you're talking about?!? The idea is that it can be incredibly valuable to be "heard to speech" by someone, i.e., to have different speech come out of you because of how you're experiencing being heard by someone. It's about the teddy bear holding the space for you with their interest, presence, and attention so that you can
- find out what you think by hearing what you have to say
- be heard in a way that facilitates being better able to express things
- be more likely to think of things and stumble across things that you find helpful
- be more able to have shifts in perspectives, etc.
What makes being heard to speech much more likely is ensuring that there is a lot of listening going on. Many people will go into a situation having every intention of doing more listening only to find themselves doing a lot of talking. The beauty of TBTS is that choice and willpower aren't so much a part of the picture. You replace discipline with structure. Instead of having to rely on discipline to try to do more listening in ordinary circumstances, with TBTS we're changing the circumstances. The teddy bear makes an agreement to either only listen, or only do something very limited (like ask questions or reflect back some of what the teddy bear heard). This keeps the teddy bear out of the talker's way, so that the interaction can be about the talker and what's going on for them and where they want to take things. Instead of the usual state of affairs, we're asking the teddy bear to contribute in only a limited amount of ways, and besides that to not make it about what's going on in their heads and what they're now thinking of.
The teddy bear might not be "doing much," but their interest, presence, and attention can make all the difference. With the teddy bear there holding the space with the talker, what to say or do next can become clear. What becomes the point of focus changes. Some things can become immediately obvious. Things can sound different and register differently for the talker. Someone is paying attention, and a lot can change because of that.
Here are some different things that teddy bears might be asked to do:
- serve as a silent witness
- do some paraphrasing of parts of what the talker said
- offer some questions (and perhaps offer the questions in writing)
- make guesses at what's at the bottom of what the talker is talking about
- serve as a scribe by writing down the parts of what the talker is saying that they ask you to
Here are some everyday things that a talker might talk through with their teddy bear:
- Whatever thoughts come to mind as they try to wade in when they're not sure where to start
- Prioritizing their day
- Making their intentions clearer with an email they just finished drafting out
- Reflecting on a parenting decision or a conversation they need to have
Since teddy bears aren't asked to do much, the hope is that Teddy Bear Talk Support can make it easier to reach out and connect with people, both with reaching out and asking someone to be a teddy bear and with reaching out and offering to be a teddy bear. Also, with the simplicity and clarity that TBTS provides, navigating social dynamics can be largely taken out of the equation. You can be clear about what the setup is, and both talker and teddy bear can benefit from the structure that provides.
Paraphrasing when asked to
- A talker and a teddy bear have agreed to do Teddy Bear Talk Support for 5 - 10 minutes. The talker has requested that the teddy bear listen silently unless the talker asks them to do some paraphrasing of what the talker has said.
Taking timed turns and offering questions in writing
- 2 - 3 people have decided to start their day by taking turns doing Teddy Bear Talk Support with each other over Zoom. They will use a timer to give each person 7 minutes for their turn as the talker. They agree that teddy bears can offer questions in writing at any time by using the chat. It is understood that the talker can feel free to not answer the questions by simply continuing to talk, and the talker is encouraged to do what feels best for them in the moment. Since the chat can be easily saved, the questions can be saved to be thought about later.
- 2 people intersperse working on their own separate tasks (that usually have nothing to do with what the other person is working on) with taking turns doing Teddy Bear Talk Support. The work sessions might be 15 minutes or 20 minutes long. Each person gets 3 minutes as the talker, so you spend about 6 minutes during the Teddy Bear Talk Support sessions. The total length of the co-working time together might be 60 minutes or 100 minutes long.
"Teddy bears" can be real live people that someone talks to in real time. Or, a talker can have interactions with teddy bears by talking to real or imagined people by writing to them, or by talking to recording devices.
The next two sections are collapsed because they are skippable if you want to read a shorter version of this writeup. If you don't want to skip them, click on "Expand" on the right hand side in order to read them.
Let's look at a setup involving a real live person in real time. Let's first look at the most minimal setup for that, where the human teddy bear is serving as a silent witness. Just like if you were talking to a stuffed animal teddy bear who can't understand what you're talking about anyway, you can talk about anything you might want to think out loud about with your human teddy bear. It's fine if they can't follow what you're saying that closely. They can still hold the space for you in ways that are supportive. For example, we use TBTS in a "can't follow closely" way during my weekly co-working meetings with a writing partner where we each are working on our own writing projects. My writing partner and I take breaks from writing every 20 minutes and take 3-minute turns serving as teddy bears for each other. We are often smack dab in the middle of something and just start talking as if the other person had a much better idea of what we were talking about than they do.
What changes now that someone else is paying attention? One big difference with having someone to talk to is that, to some extent, you're imagining what the other person is paying attention to, what are they expecting to hear you say, what parts are likely to stand out for them, etc. These things are factoring in to what you're saying to the teddy bear.
So, then, you might automatically start explaining things you don’t think you need to explain to yourself. You might end up listing off some key things or key points that can shed light on the situation. You might start to see things from a third party perspective. Such things can often lead to big shifts or profound insights.
You may have experienced this already in normal conversations. I have. Sometimes, but not necessarily, it's happened to be that the other person hadn't said very much in the conversation. Sometimes it's because they were trying to find something to say but couldn't come up with anything. When I've ended up with great insights and heartily thanked the person, "But, I didn't do anything!" has sometimes been the response.
But they are doing something for me. When “human teddy bears” serve as silent witnesses, they bring with them their facial expressions, the nodding of their heads, the puzzled looks they get on their faces, and the regard for me that they are holding me with. Just with things like that, the space is held differently for me. I hear myself differently. Someone is paying attention. As a result, some things can become immediately obvious. What I focus on changes. What to say or do next can become clear. The teddy bear's very presence changes things for me.
Note that it can be because the other person didn’t "do anything" beyond give me their presence and attention that something was facilitated for me. They held the space and gave me plenty of room to take things where I needed to go. I was able to benefit from the power of listening. I was "heard to speech" as Parker Palmer likes to describe it. Because they were there with me in the way that they were, it made possible my saying what I said, and it made possible all that came with getting to have said it.
What situations might you talk about?
Anything you might want to think out loud about (or out on paper about). Maybe it’s a situation where it’s not immediately obvious where to start or how to get some traction. Maybe it’s something you’ve been working on, an email, a presentation, a piece of writing, etc., and it’d be helpful to get clearer on what the gist of it is. Maybe it’s something you want to get a piece of hammered out or untangled. Or maybe it’s something you want to reflect on.
For example, you might be working on an elevator pitch for being able to quickly tell someone about a project. You have already succinctly written out the "What?" and the "How?" for your project. Now, you're working on saying more about the "Why?" and seeing if you can get that in as close to the beginning of your elevator pitch as you can.
Or, you might be needing to initiate a difficult conversation with someone and be wanting to figure out what requests you might want to make of the person.
Or it could be something really quick and simple, like wanting to come up with a sentence or two to make a transition from one paragraph to the next in something you're writing.
Why limited? Why have constraints?
One reason to constrain what teddy bears "do" to be very limited is because it can give the power of listening more of a chance to work its magic. One way to do this is to have it so the teddy bear only mirrors back parts of what the talker said at times when the teddy bear thinks it’d be helpful, i.e., either repeats verbatim what the talker said or reflects back in the teddy bear’s own words what the talker said.
Another way to make more room for the power of listening is a process called the Clearness Committee. It’s a process that involves multiple teddy bears supporting one focus person where the teddy bears can only respond to what the focus person is saying by asking questions.
The following excerpts from Parker Palmer’s description of the Clearness Committee give a sense for what this teddy bear setup is about:
- Many of us face a dilemma when trying to deal with a personal problem, question, or decision. On the one hand, we know that the issue is ours alone to resolve and that we have the inner resources to resolve it, but access to our own resources is often blocked by layers of inner "stuff"—confusion, habitual thinking, fear, despair. On the other hand, we know that friends might help us uncover our inner resources and find our way, but by exposing our problem to others, we run the risk of being invaded and overwhelmed by their assumptions, judgments, and advice—a common and alienating experience.
- Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out. Nothing is allowed except real questions, honest and open questions, questions that will help the focus person remove the blocks to his or her inner truth without becoming burdened by the personal agendas of committee members.
The Clearness Committee is described as a two hour process with just one focus person. Click here for a script for running a short version of the Clearness Committee where people take turns being talkers and teddy bears that I'm calling Holding the Space Sessions.
Other reasons for constraining what teddy bears do to be very limited are:
- so talkers are less in performance mode and more in a mode of freely talking to just see how things will unfold
- so we're in there's only one person's agenda at a time mode
- so there's less need to handle social dynamics
- so there's more hearing and being with
- so the talker can talk without needing the teddy bear to follow that closely with what the talker is saying, so the talker can even start in the middle of a story if they want
- so talkers can spend less time feeling isolated and more time feeling bolstered in our abilities to see how to realize possibilities
- so talkers and teddy bears can benefit from having structure, clear expectations, and predictability
- so talkers can connect with more different teddy bears, because the constraints make the role of teddy bear something you can plug anyone into
TBTS offers possibilities for exploring different structures of interacting for different situations. A talker can be briefly flipping into and out of teddy bear mode every now and then during the day with a teddy bear (can TBTS make it easy to have a socially acceptable way to have more frequent shorter interactions with someone so that talkers can have more connection with that person?), or every now and then in the middle of a conversation. Or, a talker can talk for longer periods of time with someone who is staying in teddy bear mode. A talker can have an ongoing teddy bear setup to help with achieving a goal or establishing a habit. Or, a talker can have a teddy bear setup that is just for helping with making one decision. The possibilities and the benefits are many, and we'll see that "teddy bears" are benefiting as well as "talkers." The benefits include connecting more, connecting differently, holding more space with more room for the talker, and holding the space differently. It is about benefiting from having different windows into each other's worlds.
By being included in these "limited" but significant ways in the talker's process, we are getting to take part in each other's journeys in meaningful ways.
- When you listen generously to people they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time.
- -Rachel Naomi Remen
Heard to speech
Because the teddy bear is there hearing what I have to say, that elicits different speech to come out of me. Often, because of how I'm experiencing being heard, I can be heard into deeper and deeper speech.
As my co-working writing partner put it, "It's amazing how I know what to say when someone is listening."
Teddy bears help us with discovering what might come out of our mouths, because of things like
- how we are experiencing being heard,
- how we are experiencing how the listener's presence gives us a new context to speak into,
- and how much room and freedom we are being given to take the conversation wherever we needed to go with it.
The magic that the teddy bear can experience
Here is a piece by David Castro on Learning to Listen. It is called Empathy in 8 Minutes, and it is about how he experienced doing an exercise where you listen quietly for 8 minutes as someone tells you his or her life story.
- When my partner started to tell his story, I wanted to ask a truckload of questions directing the conversation. I wanted to follow up on particular details, ask about things he hadn't mentioned, shortcut certain areas and learn more about others that interested me, like someone fast forwarding through a TV show.
- After about three minutes, however, something remarkable happened. That incessant voice in my head began to quiet, and for the first time I began to listen at a deeper level. I observed my partner’s body language, soaked in his selected words and stopped trying to control the conversation flow. In the remaining five minutes, I learned something profound about the person speaking. I began to see and understand him for the first time. I was actually listening to him instead of focusing on my bundle of projections about him.
Teddy Bear Talk Support makes it easier for the experience to be about only one person's agenda at a time. Notice how natural it is to have the both surprising and not so surprising number of agendas that David Castro had as a listener in the first 3 minutes of this exercise.
Ready to try it out?
So, what could you think through with someone? Maybe you already have something in mind. Like maybe you've got
- something you're musing about,
- or something you're trying to fix,
- or something you want to do a dry run for.
Or maybe you don't have anything in mind and are looking for some things you could think through with someone (be it in real time, or in writing, or with a recording device). The next four subsections provide some different ideas.
"Maybe I could ... "
Does prompting yourself with the words "Maybe I could ..." to start you talking help you think of something?
- For example, "Well, I have this summarizing sentence at the end of my email. Maybe I could write a different version of it that I could also put at the beginning of my email. Well, but ___________. Yeah, maybe I don't want to ___________. But, wait, if I leave out that part of the sentence and ___________. Then, maybe if I ___________. Yes, that'll do the trick. I think that's worth doing."
- Or, "I want to have a better way of handling my "out the door" items that I need to take with me when I'm leaving the house. Maybe I could always put my ___________. But, can I really get myself to do that? What if ___________? Maybe that would help. So, then, if I can count on that, then ___________. Which means I can ___________. So, if I move ___________. But, can I really get myself to do that??? What if ___________? ..."
- Brain dump or check-in for 5 - 10 minutes at the start of a work cycle. For example, this could be to start you back up after you've taken a break for lunch on Mondays.
- More frequent helpful meetings. Think of the meetings that you already have in your schedule. Could it be helpful to have more frequent meetings involving those people except that you'd have teddy bears that you met with instead of the actual people. Examples: advisors, mentors, colleagues, organizers.
Spur of the moment
- "Don't feel like it" support or "Instead of cleaning the toilet" support - When you want to get yourself to start working on something and don't feel like doing it, and especially if you're about to go clean the toilet because even that sounds like a more attractive job to do, reaching out to a teddy bear might be just the thing to try for getting yourself in gear.
- See the section Including others before you're ready (before the material is anywhere near shareable)
- Learning by explaining and puzzling over out loud support - in the midst of reading or studying, grab a teddy bear and talk things over as if the teddy bear were a fellow learner or someone you could teach the material to. Let them be someone you can digest ideas with.
- One way to give TBTS a try is through the "on-call" times when talkers can call and talk to a teddy bear without having to arrange anything beforehand. If you would like to offer times to be an on-call teddy bear, contact Leeann Fu at [email protected].
Talk out loud with the TBTS 3-minute Vanishing Voicemail number: (734) 531-9484
- Another way of doing Teddy Bear Talk Support is to call the TBTS 3-minute Vanishing Voicemail number: (734) 531-9484. Calling this number takes you straight to voicemail and allows you to be on the call for up to three minutes (no matter if you are talking or remaining silent). The voicemails left at this number vanish. (They are deleted by Leeann without being listened to.) I've been surprised time and time again how incredibly fruitful I find it to talk to a teddy bear that is merely a recording device. By providing this phone number as an easy, concrete way to immediately do TBTS, I hope it paves the way for others to easily reap the benefits for themselves as well. Note: Calling this number gives you a way to have the space held for you for the time that you are on the call, without providing you (or anyone else) access to the recording after the call is over. All recordings left at this number will be deleted without being listened to.
Talk out loud with the Need a Listening Ear for 5 minutes? YouTube video
- This is a video of someone who listens to you for 5 minutes: https://youtu.be/Bk_R8ik5NLQ?t=63
Connecting more and connecting differently
Here is an excerpt from the book You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy:
- To research this book, I interviewed people of all ages, races, and social strata, experts and nonexperts, about listening. ...
- It was extraordinary how many people told me they considered it burdensome to ask family or friends to listen to them--not just about their problems but about anything more meaningful than the usual social niceties or jokey banter.
What could help to change this? Would it help if people could say "Hey, I've got something that I could use some Teddy Bear Talk Support for. Would you mind being my teddy bear for five minutes?" and have people know what this meant? What if asking this or offering this was as easy as asking a kid to give you a high five or a fist bump?
I encourage you to imagine and experiment with the possibilities.
Want to read more?
Click here to go to the "More about Teddy Bear Talk Support" page.
Note: Work in progress
This page is under construction. One thing I'd like to make more progress on is adding more stories and examples to this website. So, if through giving TBTS a try or if you've already been doing some form of TBTS and have things to share with me, please get in touch with me by contacting me at [email protected].
- Brian W. Kernighan & Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming, Addison-Wesley (1999)