The other night at dinner, I was explaining the concept of active listening to my friends Brooke and Dan. “Oh, you mean when you—” Dan started, and before he could complete the sentence, I jumped in with “Yes! Exactly! When you listen without interrupting or offering advice.”
That, I might add, is not active listening.
Apparently, I had learned nothing after one session at Peoplehood, the new in-person and online group-chatting concept in New York City. It’s like therapy without the therapist, A.A. without the drinking problem, church without religion, or spinning without bikes. It was cooked up by the founders of SoulCycle, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, who sold that business to Equinox in 2011.
At 11 a.m. on a recent Sunday, seven of us sat in a circle, or, in Peoplehood parlance, in a “gather.” Like SoulCycle, the room was dimly lit with a four-wick scented candle in the middle, and, unlike SoulCycle, with calming music on the Sonos. A guide led us through a few breathing exercises, then asked us to talk a bit about ourselves and how we were really feeling. I tried not to say “Fine.”
Connor, that day’s leader, instructed us to listen without talking (uh-oh) and to offer only a hand on the heart or a finger snap for support. When we broke into groups of two, each of us spoke for three uninterrupted minutes about an assigned prompt. That day, it was, “What’s something you wish you could do over?” Why, thank you so much, Connor. Where do I even start?
The inspiration for Peoplehood grew out of Rice’s and Cutler’s experiences with therapy—both couples and one-on-one—and with a business coach who guided their partnership through the inevitable rocky moments.
Like everyone who’s been paying attention, Rice and Cutler noticed the isolation and loneliness surrounding them, where human connection comes in the form of a heart emoji from someone you’ve never met.
It’s like therapy without the therapist, A.A. without the drinking problem, church without religion, or spinning without bikes.
They wanted to find a way to help people foster stronger connections through better conversations, starting at $95 a month. “We looked at the data and saw a crisis, really a social-climate crisis,” Rice says. “We’re not calling this ‘mental health.’ It’s social-relational health.”
“We’re teaching people the tools so they can understand themselves and each other better,” Rice says.
Big, serious studies support their intention, if not exactly their method. An astonishingly comprehensive one, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, tracked 724 men and, eventually, their wives and descendants over 85 years, and discovered that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director, in a Ted Talk. “People who are more socially connected … live longer than people who are less well connected.”
She characterizes the idea as “peer-to-peer connection,” but I’m not entirely sure about her definition of “peer.” In my session, everyone was under 30, and four out of the six attendees were professional dancers. I listened attentively, trying not to plan a comeback, offer parental advice, or score tickets to Swan Lake while my various partners ruminated about running into an ex-boyfriend and struggling to connect with their mom. Had my posture been straighter or I’d known how to jeté, that mom could have been me. Cutler and Rice are quick to say that Peoplehood is not therapy. The group guides don’t counsel or instruct, but they are trained to listen and respond cheerfully and gently.
As I discovered in my Peoplehood session, really listening takes some effort; it’s almost physical. “Active listening means to listen with your whole body,” says Cutler. “You don’t have an agenda, and you’re not trying to fix the other person.” It’s a skill that needs honing. Too often, as Rice says, “it’s two monologues and not a dialogue.”
Just as one cycling class won’t make you physically fit, a few Peoplehood sessions won’t make you emotionally robust—or capable of not interrupting your friend Dan the second he opens his mouth. “We think of it as relational fitness,” says Rice. “It’s about muscle building.”
Dr. Waldinger calls the benefits of connection “social fitness,” a concept that meshes well with Cutler and Rice’s experience at SoulCycle. “People came to SoulCycle for exercise, but what they really found … was connection,” says Rice. For 13 years, I spent more hours than I can count in their studios around the country, rarely missing a day. I started spinning because I wanted to get fit, but I stayed because it made me happy. I also liked that the rooms were so dark, you never focused on your abs or anyone else’s. “We took ordinary people and helped them feel joy in their bodies,” says Rice. Oh, hi!
Now they’re approaching fitness from a different direction. “If you don’t have healthy relationships,” says Cutler, “there’s no way your body and mind can flourish.”
Peoplehood also offers Couplehood, group discussions that are lubricated, optionally, with wine. “We don’t have very many real conversations with our partners about our inner lives. It’s usually a logistics meeting or ‘Did you add to the FreshDirect list?’” says Rice.
“We’re all pretty pissed off at our partners most of the time because we don’t understand what’s going on in their inner lives.”
Might as well probe that in a room full of strangers, right? After sharing with the group, each couple breaks out, discussing jolly topics, such as what “home” means to them, and their emotional connection to money. “The first prompt picks at a scab,” says Rice. “The second prompt is about appreciation, and the third ends in gratitude.”
Lest this sound like a trip to hell, Cutler offers, “Listening is so sexy. If someone’s curious, it can turn resentment into empathy.” She suggests couples attend a session on a Friday night to set up the weekend for nonstop bliss. Or something like that.
I leave my Peoplehood session simultaneously energized and soothed. I actually want to return, if not as a couple, at least as a mother with issues who believes she can always, must always, do better.
Linda Wells is the Editor of Air Mail Look