Teddy Bear Tech Support (TBTS) is about the power of listening and the power of connecting. It is about exploring different modes of interacting with people where you bring other people into your process in minimal ways. By "your process," I simply mean the process of how you're going about something or thinking about something. With Teddy Bear Tech Support, there are all kinds of things that something could be:
- 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, working on longer-term projects that can be lonely to carry out like research projects or writing projects.
Adding in someone else's presence and attention when we're working on these things can not only help us arrive at better outcomes with our process, it can also create possibilities for more connection and for different ways of connecting.
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.
- The Practice of Programming (Addison Wesley) [which the above story is from, and is misquoted here] tells the story of one person at Bell Labs who was known for helping many people solve their highly technical problems. Sadly, he couldn’t always stop what he was doing to listen to someone, so he had a teddy bear in his office. When he was busy, he would tell people to “talk to the bear.” It worked very well. Soon he found people stopping by his office and going straight to the bear.
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!!! Also, the role of the teddy bear need not be played by a stuffed animal.
With Teddy Bear Tech Support, we're looking at having humans play the role of the teddy bear. So, "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.
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!
- 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.
Note that you are reading the shortest version of the Teddy Bear Tech Support writeup. To go to the unabridged, complete version, click here. These two versions are the same up until the table of contents.
There is also a medium-length version, called the Guide for teddy bears. I created it so that talkers could direct new teddy bears there to help them with getting up to speed.
- 1 Why minimal? Why have constraints?
- 2 Heard to speech
- 3 The magic that the teddy bear can experience
- 4 Ready to try it out?
- 5 Connecting more and connecting differently
- 6 Want to read more?
- 7 Note: Work in progress
- 8 References
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
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."
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.
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.
The Opportunities Signup
- One way to try it out is to go to the Opportunities Signup (bitly.com/oppsignup). This is a scheduling signup you can use to both find and propose times to do Teddy Bear Tech Support with people, and it also lists "on-call" times when you can call and talk to a human teddy bear without having to arrange anything beforehand.
Talk out loud with the TBTS Voicemail number: (734) 531-9597
- Another way of doing Teddy Bear Tech Support is to call the TBTS Voicemail number: (734) 531-9597. 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). 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.
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.
Want to read more?
The page that you are on contains the shortest version of the Teddy Bear Tech Support writeup.
Click here to go to the How does the magic work? section of the unabridged, complete version.
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]
- Brian W. Kernighan & Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming, Addison-Wesley (1999)
- Thomas Limoncelli, Time Management for System Administrators, O'Reilly Media, Inc. (2006)