Setting up safe, non-judgmental 'listening corners' across S'pore

Participants take turns to pair up for a listening session organised by project We Are Hear.
Participants take turns to pair up for a listening session organised by project We Are Hear.PHOTO: WE ARE HEAR

SINGAPORE - Ms Elle Cheng's dream is to one day have "listening corners" all over the island, where people can listen to one another in a safe, non-judgmental space.

Ms Cheng, 35, a diversity and inclusion leader at a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, is taking small steps to get there.

The founder behind the project We Are Hear (WAH), she started the initiative in March last year, when things were uncertain as the Covid-19 pandemic loomed.

The project is one of 22 under the Youth Mental Well-Being Network.

Every first and third Saturday of the month, Ms Cheng and her team organise free listening sessions, where strangers come together and are trained in the principles of heart-based learning. They recently opened another slot every second Wednesday of the month.

"Heart-based learning is listening to understand instead of giving solutions," said Ms Cheng.

Sessions start with a three-minute meditation exercise and a briefing on heart-based learning, after which participants are split into pairs to share and listen. Each person gets 15 minutes to share.

Ms Cheng was inspired by a concept from San Francisco named Sidewalk Talk where two therapists decided to create a sense of connection and belonging on the sidewalks by gathering volunteers keen to listen.

Youth mental health is also a topic close to her heart, as she struggled as a teenager when she moved here alone from Malaysia at age 13.

"It was pretty lonely and stressful. I didn't have time to be myself or have someone to listen to me. It really impacted my self-confidence," said Ms Cheng.

Ms Sharon Ng, 37, runs the operational aspects of the project. She met Ms Cheng as classmates pursuing postgraduate diplomas in psychotherapy and counselling.

Ms Ng, a mindfulness practitioner and arts producer, said she became more interested in psychology after her mother died about three years ago. She said: "(I) felt that sometimes we just need someone to talk to, or be listened to."

More than 330 people have attended the listening sessions so far, and 25 have come on board as volunteers.

Volunteers must attend a psychological first aid course before they are qualified as a "WAH Host" to host one of the listening sessions.

During the sessions, participants share problems such as financial insecurities, loneliness, missing family, confusion about their purpose in life, among other things, said Ms Cheng.

She added that the sessions are open to all, but We Are Hear has also collaborated with youth organisations to plan dedicated listening sessions for them.

Ms Cheng said they plan to continue the listening sessions, and need more volunteers who can then help to host more sessions.