When Lucy set up her psychiatric stand, charging her friends five cents a session in that famous Peanuts comic strip, was she on to something? Don't we all have a friend, family member, or even work acquaintance who has called us up or stopped us in the breakroom to rant about something, unchecked? What if, in these moments, we sent these people an invoice? What if we understood listening as not just a skill, but a job we could get paid for — maybe even paid a lot for?
These questions are top of mind to New Yorker Chris Keise. A former Long Island Seahawks football player–turned personal trainer, gym manager, and standup comedian, Keise is eager to talk about storytelling, listening, and the particular kind of loneliness rife in a city where you're never really alone. His words are dotted with aphorisms, his voice deep and piney like a seasoned voiceover actor. And he has a new side project: Just a couple months ago, Keise started working part-time as a professional listener.
"I wouldn't accuse myself of being a super-sharp, over-educated person," he says, "but I will give myself that I'm observant. And I feel like people are not really in touch with one another. Especially with Covid … And perhaps they don't have anybody to really turn to, to talk about it."
And so, Keise did what many entrepreneurial-minded people do when they notice an unfilled niche: He posted an ad on Craigslist. He'll admit, he hasn't talked to a ton of people; he hasn't been doing the work that long. But about three times a week, he gets a call.
The first interaction is free and then, clients pay $20 for a thirty-minute conversation in which they can just talk. What's bothering them? Overwhelming them? Who do they miss and why do they miss them? There are the calls from people who have just moved to the city, the calls from those who are lonely, the call he once got from a young man who wanted to talk about the challenges of being a gay man isolated in the Bronx.
"At the end of the day," Keise told him, "we all owe it to ourselves, especially in this city, to make ourselves available to the world." Is he a new kind of Dear Abby, doling out advice, small insights, validations?
If you ask him, part of his ability to listen, professionally, has to do with knowing when to let someone go on, unchecked. "If they need somebody to just talk to and connect," he says, "then I'll be that ear. Because I understand, it's not always possible for some people."
Though his service is unique, Keise is not the only one providing it. Listening is no longer just a skill, but an industry — one that monetizes the ability to have, sometimes deliberately, one-sided conversations. And as an industry, it has been growing throughout the pandemic.
Sandra Bodin-Lerner, also based in New York City, works as a communication coach while also teaching courses on listening at both Montclair State and Kean University, and simultaneously serving as Vice President of Membership on the board of the International Listening Association. The ILA has been around for forty years and has a paying membership base that extends across three different continents. Approaching listening from a wide variety of interdisciplinary contexts, members include researchers, lawyers, doctors, life coaches.
Bodin-Lerner remembers the sheer influx of clients and members who reached out to her during the pandemic. Suddenly, people were asking: How do we establish connections over Zoom? How do we communicate? How do we get better at listening?
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"We quit jobs because we don't feel heard," Bodin-Lerner says, "or we leave marriages and romantic relationships because you don't feel heard by your partner or understood. People complain about it, but they don't really do much to get better at it." The challenge of teaching someone to listen? Showing them, first, just how few of us are good at it to begin with. And for everyone who feels they need to get better at listening, twice as many people feel they need to be heard.
Anthony Nosike in Union, New Jersey, who started work as a professional listener in July, said it wasn't necessarily about monetizing this ability to make people feel heard. The Union County College student, studying psychology, says he was inspired by a friend who committed suicide in April. He believes it was the isolation of the pandemic that triggered the suicide.
Unlike Keise, Nosike doesn't charge for his listening sessions, though he admits he'd "like to get paid some day." His Craiglist ad reads, "Need a friend?" followed by a very short paragraph that includes a lofty promise: "My name is Anthony. I'll help you feel loved by being a good listener to you."
But despite such a grandiose assurance, on the phone Nosike is quick to clarify why people call him and why he does this. "People need listeners," he says. And though most of his clients call him to vent, many want to talk about love, or loneliness — ubiquitous struggles that became unignorable in the social isolation of a pandemic.
"I know what it's like to be lonely, suicidal, depressed," he says. But he is amazed by the stories of what people have been able to overcome. And he says that his personal goal, in both his listening and his real life, to ensure that "everybody who crosses my path leaves feeling better."
This desire to help through listening is echoed by Tiffany Himes, who founded NY Listens, a professional listening service, a year and a half ago. With a background in both journalism and grief counseling, and experience with active listening at a pregnancy resource center where she spoke to women dealing with the shock of unexpected pregnancies, Himes charges $30 for a half-hour call and $50 for a full hour, according to her website.
"I did sell seashells by the seashore with my brother growing up," she jokes, "but I'm not much of an entrepreneur . . . My grandfather always said everyone has a story. That always stuck with me."
It was this belief that inspired her to found NY Listens. And though she admits she hasn't been heavily marketing her company, she says she was influenced by the quiet revelation she had while talking with expectant mothers: People very often end up being their own best teachers.
Himes is not a therapist. She's careful to make this distinction. She believes professional listening is not a replacement for therapy. At the same time, she says, "I thought a professional listener would really help cut through the fear that people have of the medical field. Of being analyzed, of being diagnosed."
Keise, who recognizes a similar anxiety towards therapy, floats a different idea: "I didn't graduate with a psychology degree. But I kind of wonder, do you really need that psychology degree? The truth of the matter is, we live for, more or less, the same things."
Does this mean that our shared desires are the only supplies we need to effectively listen? Indeed, we live in an age of alternatives. Is professional listening just another one? And where is the demand coming from?
Himes stresses the sheer amount of time it takes to find a professional mental healthcare provider. Or the cost, even after insurance — if you have it — kicks in. Even though some of these healthcare apps and sites provide the professional of all professional listeners — licensed therapists — Himes thinks these services might be more of a turnoff than one might think.
"That can be nice if you feel like you really need a professional and you're looking for a diagnosis. But in some ways, I think a lot of people aren't. A lot of people are at a point in their lives where they want change."
She is a bit giddy to share a recent idea. She has noticed that sometimes, people call because they might just want to share a secret. And in the face of this desire, they face a question: "Who do you call?"
Who do you call? A microcosm for a larger, pandemic-related dread. Who is willing to listen to individual suffering, or even just individual secret-sharing, in a time when suffering is so universal? Who will listen when everyone has something to say?
These aren't new questions. Just as loneliness or the desire to be heard is not new. But their persisting relevance, and the professional listening services that respond to them, can be seen as a litmus test for the extent to which we are willing to invest, or turn to the web's wide void for answers. It also represents a certain type of social alienation that may drive some to seek out gig economy resources that could help. Or, that could leave us terribly exposed. How do you protect yourself when you are so desperate to find someone you can trust?
Dr. Sofia Noori, a clinical instructor at the Yale Department of Psychiatry and former chief resident of digital psychiatry, says there is an ethical gray area when wellness services and mental health services are mistaken for each other.
"I tend to think of digital mental health products as either being clinical," she says, "or something that's more like wellness . . . something someone voluntarily engages in. And the regulatory landscape around what wellness is is very, very murky." Dr. Noori has followed, for example, the growing cottage industry that is known as coaching. Essentially, she says, coaches find a way to provide therapeutic services in a "downshifted" way that doesn't always require licensing or regulation.
Dr. Noori wonders: is professional listening just another extension of coaching? Meaning, a way to provide some type of therapy in an even more "downshifted" manner?
"Some of the coaches can do very, very good work," she says, "but on the other hand it's very confusing for patients. The quality is incredibly variable, and there's a lot of danger in that." After all, will listeners or coaches recognize if a client needs more help than they can provide? Especially if those listeners are untrained, and especially if there is no regulatory precedent that demands training?
Guided by these lingering questions, Dr. Noori only sees the digitization of mental healthcare resources growing. "This just brings up this bigger problem where mental health services are so highly needed and there's not enough practitioners. And so people are like, 'there's all these opportunities to offer care…'"
The demand for more accessible resources has grown in the face of a pandemic that has left the mental healthcare industry so overburdened. In August 2020, the CDC published a study that surveyed adults across the U.S. and found that 41% reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.
But, even if access is a completely valid concern, why becomes a question with its own odd echo chamber. Why pay a stranger, and why pay a stranger whose qualifications may be totally unverifiable?
For Claire G. (who prefers to not share her surname, and whose clients know her only as Claire, The Professional Listener) it comes down to loneliness. Based just outside of York, England, she works frequently with young professionals, and charges $70 for twenty-five minute calls, $125 for fifty minutes.
"I think loneliness as a topic is one that's not discussed very widely amongst younger and middle-aged age groups," she says. "You may, physically, be surrounded by people all day long, but actually you're feeling lonely and isolated within yourself." According to Claire, this version of loneliness is not only less visible, but less understood. It's the type of loneliness best addressed by someone who knows how to listen without necessarily overburdening you with a response.
Claire also believes the industry will keep growing, people will keep calling, even after the pandemic winds down. After all, what will happen when society begins to return to "normal," and many people still don't feel better? The sensation that we are being left behind is another lonely one. And there is a layer of protection in being able to disclose this sensation to a stranger. "I think that's why people sometimes seek out professional listening," Claire says. "As a way to talk with someone openly, and having someone with whom to connect."
Sandra Bodin-Lerner recalls sitting in a listening classes at Kean University watching this need play out. All semester long, students had been making disclosures as a way of practicing empathetic listening with each other. In a series of slow disclosures that took place over many weeks, one particular young student described the downfall of her relationship with her mother.
Suddenly, the student arrived to class having experienced a breakthrough.
"She goes, 'for the first time in two years, I felt heard by my mom,'" Bodin-Lerner remembers. "And she said, 'well, my mom said that for the first time in two years, she felt heard by me.'" What's more: Could she bring her mom to a class? More students jumped in. Could they bring their roommates? Boyfriends?
"When do college students ever invite their parents to school?" Bodin-Lerner asks, her voice still tinged with wonder. The desire to share what they had been learning led to a fifty-person turnout at their class' friends and family day.
"They need this," Bodin-Lerner remembers thinking. Doesn't everyone?