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Something on your mind? Joshua Lazerson would like to hear about it

Four months ago, Joshua Lazerson of Encinitas launched an experiment.

Armed with a cardboard sign, some portable camping chairs and an open ear, Lazerson kicked off the Listening Project. On two afternoons every week at various North County beach parks, Lazerson has invited passers-by to sit down for a few minutes and talk about anything they want. There’s no name required, no judgment, no time limit, no request for donations, no religious proselytizing and no questions asked. Lazerson, 63, just sits and listens, occasionally offering an encouraging word or nod, and only answering questions if they’re asked.

Since he started the Listening Project on June 20, more than 100 people — ranging in age from 7 to 80 — have sat down to talk. Most stay for five minutes or less. Others have chatted for up to 45 minutes. Many visitors sit down because they’re curious to learn more about the project. The rest, Lazerson says, are lonely for one-on-one conversation, they’re at a crossroads in their lives or they’re dealing with relationship troubles, and the opportunity to share their thoughts with a willing stranger is an opportunity they can’t pass up.

During Wednesday afternoon’s session at Swami’s park in Encinitas, Sara Ohara was the first person to sit down with Lazerson. She talked for nearly 30 minutes. Ohara said she had walked past Lazerson and his sign two weeks ago on her way to a beach run. But on her way back home that day, she took his business card, visited his website, thelisteningproject.us, and decided to come back for a talk.

“I think what he’s doing is really valuable,” said Ohara, a website designer who has lived in Encinitas for 22 years. “I spend half my day on the Internet, so when I go out, I don’t use my phone. But I find that so many people are on their phones and they don’t talk to one another anymore. I thought his method was really interesting. He didn’t really talk. He just listened.”

Joshua Lazerson, left, listens to Sara Ohara talk in Swami's Seaside Park.

Joshua Lazerson, left, listens to fellow Encinitas resident Sara Ohara during one of his Listening Project sessions in Swami’s Seaside Park on Wednesday, Oct. 12, in Encinitas. Lazerson started The Listening Project as a way to invite people to sit down and talk about themselves while he listens.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lazerson, a longtime grant writer for Vista Community Clinic, is not a professional counselor or therapist. He’s just a believer in the power of listening, and he hopes others will follow in his footsteps and start their own Listening Projects.

“When I was about 15 years old I had a strong feeling that people don’t listen to each other. That bothered me and seemed counterproductive. So I prioritized listening in my mid-20s. I realized I didn’t need to be first to speak. I only spoke if I needed or wanted to. It served me well in relationships and in learning and understanding the world. I think having a conscious focus on listening is healthy.”

Lazerson is a self-professed people person who likes to help others. Last October, he launched a GoFundMe campaign to help 97-year-old Rose Sleigh stay in the Carlsbad board-and-care home that she could no longer afford because her savings had dwindled. Sleigh was Lazerson’s AP English teacher at Torrey Pines High in 1976, and they had remained good friends over the years. When Sleigh lost her vision and could no longer read five years ago, Lazerson visited her nearly every day to read books to her.

His GoFundMe campaign — which went viral after a San Diego Union-Tribune article in December — raised $54,000, and it allowed Sleigh to stay in the home until she died there, peacefully and on her own terms, on April 11. She was surrounded by loved ones, including Lazerson, his wife Nancy and their 22-year-old son Aris. After Sleigh passed, Lazerson had more free time in his schedule and decided to follow through on the Listening Project, which was an idea he conceived three years ago.

“I know this is something Rose would have appreciated. She was a good listener,” he said. “I happen to be a person who really likes people and cares about other people. That’s something we can all give to one another. It’s a small thing but it’s a real thing. It’s not therapy, but I have no doubt it could be therapeutic.”

Lazerson said he procrastinated a little on getting the project started because he was afraid of the public reaction. Would people think he was crazy or asking for money? Would nobody want to talk? But on that first day in June, four people sat down with him. The first was a musician in his 20s from Mexico whose work visa was about to expire, but he’d fallen in love while performing in Los Angeles and was torn over whether to return home to Mexico or extend his stay here.

“He asked me my opinion, but I didn’t see it as my place to insert myself or offer advice,” Lazerson said. “But I felt ecstatic. I realized my vision had come to life, and it felt like a meaningful encounter.”

Ohara, who visited with Lazerson on Wednesday, said she talked to him about a challenging situation she’s having with a family member.

“It was helpful that (Joshua) didn’t know this person,” Ohara said. “If I’d tried to talk to one of my friends about it, they would’ve told me to let it go because I can’t change it. But talking with him I felt comfortable and safe, and I think I came to a resolution about my problem.”

Lazerson said the people who sit down are pretty evenly split between men and women. Although women are less likely to sit down with a male stranger, they’re more open emotionally to sharing their feelings with someone they don’t know.

Loneliness is one of the biggest topics that people — both young and old — bring up when they sit with Lazerson. Relationship problems are also high on the list. And many young people say they are battling anxiety. Some people have talked to him about grappling with past trauma, including a few real-life therapists who were still processing the stories they heard from their clients. And many other people said they were struggling with grief and loss.

“There’s a general feeling among the talkers that society expects people to get over their grieving quickly. In truth, they can’t get over significant loss that fast,” he said.

Despite today’s divisive political climate, Lazerson said he hasn’t been the recipient of any political rants. But many people do talk about bigger problems than their own.

“They’re interested in talking about the future of the world, climate change, economic decline and stability. Some are very worried. Some wonder if they should bring a child into this world,” he said.

Joshua Lazerson sits in his chair and waits for passers-by at Swami's Seaside Park in Encinitas.

Joshua Lazerson, who recently founded the Listening Project, sits in his chair and waits for passers-by at Swami’s Seaside Park on Wednesday, Oct. 12, in Encinitas. The sign invites people to sit down and talk about anything they like.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

During a typical two- to three-hour session, Lazerson said about five or more people will sit down. The highest number he spoke to in one session was seven. A couple of times nobody sat down, but he wasn’t bothered by that.

“You can turn it into a numbers game, but I don’t like that mindset,” he said. “It’s not a failure if nobody comes. The people who join me are ready to do so. If no one comes by, that’s what it is. It’s about me being available and presenting an opportunity or gift of my time.”

While Lazerson said he plans to continue setting out his chairs a couple afternoons a week at beach parks between Del Mar and Oceanside, he knows he’s only reaching a small number of people this way. As colder weather approaches, he is hoping people will find his website and invite him to set up at indoor locations, like shopping malls, offices or retirement centers. He’s also hoping that his idea will inspire people around the world to start their own Listening Projects in their communities.

“I will keep doing this indefinitely. It fulfills a need in me and it’s meaningful to people. So I hope it grows,” he said. “It’s not suited to everyone, but there are 330 million people in this country and there’s quite a few of them who could do this. That’s what I want — to be far from the only person who’s out there listening.”