Guide for teddy bears

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This is the medium-length version of the Teddy Bear Tech Support writeup created so talkers could direct new teddy bears to this page to help them with getting up to speed. To go to the unabridged, complete version, click here. To go to the shortest version, click here to be taken to the Main Page.


Tech support? Is this really just about providing help with tech support? No! Teddy Bear Tech Support (TBTS) is about letting the power of listening work its magic with all kinds of things:

  • everyday issues: whether to include or leave something out of an email, whether or not to actually buy something that you're just about to buy
  • major life issues: taking stock on where you're at with being unhappy with parts of your job and what you might want to do about it
  • assignments for class or for work: working on a report on suspected causes for a trend
  • projects: scheming about planning a surprise for someone, longer-term projects that can be lonely to carry out like research projects or writing projects.

Teddy Bear Tech Support is about support that requires a minimal amount of "doing" on the part of the people that are providing the support.

Here’s just how minimal it can be:

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.[1]

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. As a result, the point of focus can change. You can hear yourself differently. What you have to say can unfold in a very different way.

Teddy Bear Tech Support was inspired by the story about the teddy bear at the tech support help desk, but note well that tech support is NOT what this is about!!!

Here are some examples of what someone might want to talk through with you when you're 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
  • Fleshing out some different possibilities that could address an issue
  • Reflecting on a parenting decision or a conversation they need to have

Here are some minimal things you might be asked to do as a teddy bear:

  • serve as a silent witness
  • do some paraphrasing of parts of what you've said
  • offer some questions (and perhaps offer the questions in writing)
  • make guesses at the core of what's important

At the heart of what TBTS is about is giving talkers an environment

  • where the focus is on bringing their own resources to bear to the matters at hand
  • where the processing that the talkers are doing is to be supported with highest priority (so that the thoughts and impulses, e.g., to give advice, of the teddy bears don't threaten to encroach on the talker's processing)

So, with teddy bear setups, it’s about getting to interact with someone in a way that makes it so talkers are better able to help themselves. As a teddy bear, a key part of your job involves staying out of the talker's way, and that's why what you're "doing" is kept to a minimum.

You might not be "doing" much, but your presence and attention can make all the difference. With you 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. The talker can hear themselves differently. Someone is paying attention, and a lot can change because of that.

Since teddy bears aren't asked to do much, will Teddy Bear Tech Support make it easier to reach out and connect with people? Easier for talkers to ask someone to be their teddy bear? Easier for someone to introduce the idea of Teddy Bear Tech Support to a potential talker and offer to be their teddy bear on the fly? The hope is, yes!

Setup examples:

Paraphrasing Bear

A talker and a teddy bear have agreed to do Teddy Bear Tech 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 Tech 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.

"Teddy bears" can be real live people that you talk to in real time. Or, you can have interactions with teddy bears by talking to real or imagined people by writing to them, or by talking to recording devices.


Why minimal? Why have constraints?

One reason to constrain what teddy bears do to be minimal 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. I'm holding these sessions on Wednesdays from 6:45 - 7:45 pm Eastern over Zoom. Go to the Opportunities Signup to sign up (by two hours in advance).

Other reasons for constraining what teddy bears do to be minimal are:

  • so talkers are less in performance mode
  • so the talker is more in more freely talking just see how things unfold mode
  • 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, more being there and just seeing what unfolds
  • 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 of whatever they've been thinking about
  • so we can connect more often in more different ways, because you can have teddy bears support talkers for short lengths of time with more different content
  • 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 be talking more at length with a teddy bear. 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 "minimal" 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

How does the magic work?

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 a talker, I'm in the here and now with the teddy bear having this one particular interaction. It's a different context, a supportive context, that the listener is helping to create, and it offers this opportunity to take a stab with discovering what happens as I hear what I have to say.

As my co-working writing partner put it, "It's amazing how I know what to say when someone is listening."

Mere presence of a teddy bear

Left to our own devices, we will tend to go down certain paths. The mere presence of a teddy bear can be all it takes for us to be finding ourselves going down different sets of paths. I might be able to stay more focused on what's important or what needs the most attention, or have better self talk, or think more big picture, etc.

Here are some other possibilities that could all just be from the mere presence of the teddy bear or could involve the teddy bear playing a more active role:

  • You're getting to hear how it sounds to yourself to be saying these things.
  • You might uncover assumptions that you didn't even know that you were making.
  • The setup puts you in a whole different mindset than before.
  • The teddy bear's presence has you benefiting from the feeling that help is right within reach.
  • Having a teddy bear along for the ride can cause different things to jump out at you automatically. So, one reason to recruit a teddy bear is because things can feel much easier when they are happening automatically, and this can help you with building momentum and gaining traction.

Imagining/simulating what is going on for the teddy bear

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.

Note that if you're just imagining what's going on for the teddy bear, not only does the teddy bear not have to say anything, but you're not having to respond to anything. So, you can keep a lot of the benefits of working as if you were by yourself and yet still benefit from engaging with someone else. It doesn't take the time it would take for them to say things to you or for you to respond to these things, and it doesn't take the managing of social dynamics to handle these things.

One thing that's particularly interesting with TBTS is that what you are imagining need not be anything like what's actually going on for the teddy bear. It doesn't have to be about that. It can be about your experience as the talker and what the imagining of these things does for you in terms of what you're then saying or thinking.

Small things can make big differences

So, it might be something the talker is "inaccurately" imagining is going on for the teddy bear that leads to an insight, or it can even be a misunderstanding that provides just what you needed. It might be any number of things and they can be anything from fairly random to more predictably helpful. What the talker finds helpful can have many sources, including:

  • something about the teddy bear's presence causes you to talk about things in a different order, and that makes something you've been avoiding working on much easier to handle
  • a word that gets said that makes an idea pop into your head
  • the teddy bear raises an eyebrow and that changes everything
  • the teddy bear provides needed extra emphasis on something by mirroring it back to you
  • the teddy bear leaves out an important point while mirroring back what you said, and leaving it out helps to highlight it for you. This might cause you to then say it again or rephrase it for your teddy bear or flesh out more of why it’s important to you, and you might find doing one of these things to be particularly helpful.

Totally committing

  • Sometimes my problem is that I keep finding myself saying, “No, I don’t like that” and doing a lot of starting over. So, I'm not able to commit to trying things out by going down just one path and continuing to build on it.
    • This can definitely happen with writing, where I spend a lot of time just thinking about writing instead of actually writing. Sitting around thinking about writing (especially if you’re like me and want things to spring perfectly from your head) doesn’t get you to the same places (to say the least) as actually getting things out onto paper does.
    • What can help is using a recording device (if not a real person) as a teddy bear. Otherwise, sitting around thinking is precisely what happens for me when I try to talk out loud without a person or a recording device listening, I tend to trail off and shift back into just doing a lot of thinking without talking.
  • What's key is to have it feel like someone or something is paying attention. Because of that, the space has been held for me to have a different process unfold.

What's not happening and what's not blocking the talker

For the power of listening to work it's magic, there needs to be things that are not happening. Some things that tend to happen in normal conversation are more innocent, whereas other things that tend to happen are more easily seen as having big drawbacks. In both cases, these habitual ways of talking can be helpful at times, and there can be a place for them when you're not doing Teddy Bear Tech Support.

I'll talk about the latter first by sharing a handout from a training program on Nonviolent Communication that I attended: DeflectiveListeningEmpathyBlockers.pdf

The handout has a list of what are called empathy blockers on it. Being in empathy with someone is getting a sense for what they're going through in a caring way. The person can then feel like you understand and that you "get it." Empathy blockers make it harder to have the ability to be in empathy with someone. They can shut the person down or make it less likely that they'll provide you with the information that can help you to understand.

Many of the examples on the list are natural ways in which we are used to responding and are often well-intentioned. Notice that many of them involve your having an agenda that you are now trying to talk to the person about and that part of the magic of TBTS is to make it so that the talker can use their time for just their agendas.

It's so easy to have agendas. It's so easy for our assumptions, judgments, and advice to get in the way of connecting with someone. In the next section, we'll see what can happen for the teddy bear if these more innocent parts of normal conversation are not coming into play.

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.

TBTS 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.

Click here for some other gifts that teddy bears can get from "engaging minimally."

Same page enough

The beauty of TBTS is that you only have to be on the same page enough with your talker. If they don't have the time or desire to get you fully up to speed with everything, they can still benefit from your support if the name of the game is to just be on the same page enough.

It's fine if you can't follow what they're saying that closely. 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.

You only have to get the gist of some aspect of what they're talking about to be able to come along for the ride. It could be just to see how frustrated they are with what's happening. There are different things like this that you can follow about what's going on with the talker as they go along that allow your presence to be felt by the talker, especially if later the talker stumbles on a solution to what's been frustrating to them and you can then knowledgeably join in the celebration.

Because all that's required is that you're both on the same page enough, this can help the talker get into freely improvising mode.

Here's one example where it didn't take much to get my listener on the same page enough as me. All I had to do was repeatedly say the words "grumble grumble grumble," and this proved to be a very satisfying way to do it. In fact, it definitely felt more satisfying than if I had spelled things out with more words. Saying "grumble grumble grumble" over and over again was a great way to acknowledge, validate, and sit with how I was feeling. The content of the words I would've said instead of "grumble grumble grumble" didn't matter. It was getting to feel the feeling that mattered. So, this made it so the content of the words didn't have undue influence.

Not the Teddy Bear's page instead of the Talker's

Here's a sentiment that often rings true for me: I don't know what I think until I've heard what I've had to say. I get to find out what comes out of my mouth when I shift into think out loud mode. So, I benefit a lot from getting to talk through things with people. As I talk, if I've found that I've said something particularly helpful or insightful, it helps if I can immediately take the ball and run with it. But, I don't always get to. Often, I find myself feeling like I'm chasing the other person around. They've got their own ideas and their own agendas, and I'm trying to work within the rules of normal social dynamics to steer them back to a place that I want to explore.

What TBTS is not about: Having the teddy bear expound on "If I were the talker, here's how I would go about things.

It's not to have the teddy bear do our work for us or live our lives for us. In fact, when there's a tendency for these things, it's possible that setting up a clear teddy bear setup could allow us to interact with the person in a way that is more connecting (especially when it's someone who often makes lots of suggestions and who tends to have agendas for us).

Developing listening skills

Teddy bears get to develop listening skills by getting to witness the power of listening as they make choices (in the teddy bear setups that have choices to be made) about when to do things like mirror back what they've heard and when to offer questions, and as they learn to ask questions that are more of a listening nature.

I have a friend who often mentions that they find me skilled at listening and that they would really appreciate being able to be a better listener themselves. I wonder if having experiences with being a silent witness teddy bear could help my friend become a better listener.

If the rule is simply that the teddy bear remain silent, that can make things much easier for people not only in the moment but likely in the future as well. This is a way the teddy bear can get to have experiences of what it's like to listen. Seeing how things unfold when all that has been offered is listening will provide experiences of what can be made possible by the power of listening. These experiences can yield a lasting impression that can help the teddy bear become inclined to make the choice to listen more in the future.

Empowering to witness

For me, I've found it empowering to see how effective it is when we are better able to explore our own ideas for ourselves. I've found it reassuring to watch people say things to themselves that I would've wanted to say to them (if I weren't being a silent witness). When I first tried providing silent support, it did seem a little crazy to me. Really, you don't say anything at all to the talker? But, seeing that what I wanted to tell them would sometimes come out of their mouths helped me trust more in this process that seemed a bit crazy to me. They know, too. They are able to help themselves, too. I found it empowering to see how we have the wisdom to help ourselves.

These experiences remind me that what I want to do is hold the space with compassion and trust for the talker, knowing how empowering giving that kind of support can be (both for me to witness and for the talker to receive) and knowing that getting it is all too rare.

If it's hard to refrain from offering suggestions and advice

The pull of doing what we usually do in conversations can be very strong. When I have suggestions I think the talker could totally benefit from, I have a hard time resisting the urge not to try to offer them.

Something I can say to myself in these situations is "But, that's not why I'm here." There's a process that I'm taking part in, and that process in and of itself is offering something of great worth to the talker. It's easy to get sucked in by the specific content and to not prioritize the process over the content.

We can trust in the process and trust in helping the talker find their own answers.

Our gift to give the talker is our presence. So, when we're tempted to offer suggestions, it can help to notice and be curious about our impulses to offer suggestions. What's driving this? What's up for us? We might try getting curious about what it's like to be having this experience and sitting with that as just one of many experiences that we can have. Getting present with what's going on for us can help us to let it go more easily. It can help with returning our attention to holding the space for what's going on for the talker.

Being constrained to not provide suggestions and advice can feel like a limitation. But, it can also feel freeing. With TBTS, you don't need to do much of what you normally need to do in a conversation. Instead, there's more bandwidth for you to appreciate the beauty of being with someone.

Unconditional respectful regard

The people who help us grow toward true self offer unconditional love, neither judging us to be deficient nor trying to force us to change but accepting us exactly as we are. And yet this unconditional love does not lead us to rest on our laurels. Instead, it surrounds us with a charged force field that makes us want to grow from the inside out—a force field that is safe enough to take the risks and endure the failures that growth requires.
-Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

Kinds of support that a talker might be looking for

  • whatever is on their mind support
  • feeling stuck support
  • as if talking to an expert support (can help them prepare to talk to an actual expert)
  • taking regular pitstops along the way with you support (for someone working on a long-term project, like a term paper, a book, or a thesis)
  • don't feel like it support (including "before they're ready to start" support)
  • to get even more support that complements the support they get from a partner or an advisor/mentor

Teddy Bears recruiting Talkers

I've talked about TBTS in terms of talkers recruiting teddy bears. But, teddy bears can also recruit talkers. For example, teddy bears that have retired from their careers can be of service to young talkers. One thing this could help with is with finding talkers that they can be normal mentors to or normal friends with.

Doing job shadowing is another reason teddy bears might have for recruiting talkers. If someone is wondering about what it would be like to be in a certain career field, sometimes they arrange to shadow/follow a person around on the job to experience what the job is like. One way to do job shadowing is to have times where you serve as a teddy bear for the person you are shadowing.

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 Tech 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.

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]

One way to give TBTS a try is by going to the Opportunities Signup (bitly.com/oppsignup), where you can find people you can schedule times to do Teddy Bear Tech Support with either as a teddy bear, a talker, or by trading off and taking turns serving as both.

There are also "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, you can click here to fill out a form to have your times added to the listings. Or, you can also take care of this by contacting Leeann Fu at [email protected]

References

  1. Brian W. Kernighan & Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming, Addison-Wesley (1999)