Video and transcript from Steven Tomlinson’s talk at Control the Room 2022

Control the Room 2022 was an absolute success! We hosted our annual facilitator summit alongside our partner MURAL. Our wonderful connection between the live event and the virtual world, hosted by Mark Tippin, Director of Strategic Next Practices, Mark facilitated “Mind Shift” sessions, where he guided our attendees through a dialog about how everyone was impacted by the talks. He engaged both in-person and virtual attendees through our various activities in our conference mural. It was inspiring to have so many people joining in different ways and everyone getting the chance to communicate.

We also partnered with SAFE this year to support and honor a lost colleague, Jenni Robertson. The dedication of this summit comes after losing a coworker, mother, and friend to family violence and Voltage Control has pledged to work with SAFE to stop family violence for everyone. We wanted to take a moment and look back on all of the moments of insight, knowledge, and growth we all took part in over the course of the summit.

This year’s summit theme was SHIFTS, and as we move into 2022 we have seen shifts in the way we work, the way we connect, and the way we honor one another.

This year we hosted 18 facilitators in a hybrid space. We were live in-person, on Zoom, and even created our own Control the Room VR space, and we must say the event, even with a few technical issues, turned out to be a hub of idea sharing and growing with each other. 

Each speaker delivered a 20-minute lightning session, and each session was filled with a sense of community, play, and story-telling.

Interventions To Combat Loneliness Through Inclusion

Well, we are in rooms trying to help people make discoveries. We’re trying to help them understand. We’re trying to help them solve problems. We love that talking and listening done in a sharp, thoughtful way can help people be smart together. I think really though, what a lot of us love about facilitation is that we can give people a different way to be together, to actually enjoy each other, to discover trust, to build bonds.

Steven Tomlinson

We are living in an epidemic of loneliness. Steven, with his ultimately honest and inherently hilarious, story of his first experience as a hospital chaplain, with trying to help people. He was told he was the worst. This was a moment of learning, about the fact that there are small pieces that we can do to affect people’s loneliness. Begin by following their cues, and realize yes/no questions make you feel challenged and create stopping points because they do not encourage anything beyond the question. So rather than asking the yes/no question “Do you have a family?”  ask ‘tell me about your family’’. In truth, silence is what trust sounds like.

Watch Steven Tomlinson speak on Interventions to Combat Loneliness Through Inclusion:

There’s something about this way of talking and listening that changed people’s self assessment of how connected they were to other people. We also noticed a difference in anxiety. So perhaps there is something about this way of being with people that creates a unit of belonging, the smallest possible instance of connection

Steven Tomlinson

Steven Tomlinson:


My priest told me when I was about 36 that he had enrolled me in a summer program for hospital chaplains. He said it was probably the only way he was going to save my soul. So I was a chaplain at St. David’s Hospital. And my supervisor, Sally [inaudible 00:00:40] followed out of a patient’s room and she said, “You’re awful.” I said, “No, not awful.” She said, “You’re probably the worst chaplain we’ve had at St. David’s Hospital.” I said, “I’m doing everything that I can to bring comfort to the patients.” She said, “You talk too much. You give advice. You are troubleshooting the patients. The patients are exhausted. And the only comfort they are finding is when you leave the room.”

I said, “How do I get better?” She said, “I don’t think you’re going to get better.” She said, “Honey, I just think this is something you’re not good at.” And I said, “I’m here for another three months and you’ve got to give me a lifeline or I’ll do something desperate.” And she thought for a minute. And she said, “I think you’re probably a good teacher. And what you don’t understand is the patients don’t need a teacher. They need someone who is willing to learn from them, what their life is like.” And I said, “I never thought of that.” And she said, “It is very clear you never thought of that.” She said the only question is, are you interested in being with people that way?

Well, we are in rooms trying to help people make discoveries. We’re trying to help them understand. We’re trying to help them solve problems. We love that talking and listening done in a sharp, thoughtful way can help people be smart together. I think really though, what a lot of us love about facilitation is that we can give people a different way to be together, to actually enjoy each other, to discover trust, to build bonds. And I think we talk a lot about words like safety and belonging and trust because that’s really the part of our work that means the most to us. It’s peacemaking. It’s community building. And this work has never been more important because as we learn from looking at the data, we are living in an epidemic of loneliness that a third of the people over 45 in the United States say that they’re lonely.

And those numbers have tripled since the 1980s when we started tracking this data. And so, the question that I have always been curious about is why are people lonely and what can make a difference? Because we can’t be intimately involved in everyone’s life, but is there something that we’re doing in the small ways that we are talking and listening with each other that can either dispel loneliness or deepen it? Are there small points of contact and practices that can give people a sense of belonging? And the stakes are very high and I offer this to you today. Perhaps it touches the work you’re trying to do of community building, peacemaking, perhaps this speaks to your aspirations for your own ministry as a facilitator. When we think about loneliness, this is now a large medical issue because it’s a big mental health concern.

And Dr. Minikalan and I were talking about this a couple of years ago and asking small targeted interventions make a difference in people’s experience of loneliness? And she had a team at the Dell Medical School and we worked together to create a study. And the idea was perhaps we could call people, a phone call, a short one ever so often. And is there a chance that this might make a difference in people’s experience of loneliness and actually their mental health? And so we recruited a group of people age 20 to 90, who were clients of Meals On Wheels around the state. And we got them to agree to get a phone call a week for four weeks. They could choose how long to talk. They could choose what the subject was. And they were going to participate in study with us.

And so we recruited a group of college students to be our volunteer callers. And now the issue was what are we going to teach them to do? What are they going to do on these calls that might make a difference because we had screened all of our participants with a psychological baseline to test them for depression, anxiety, and loneliness? And we wanted to see if a way of engaging these calls could make a difference. And there are a lot of studies on these so-called sunshine calls that have not moved the needle on people’s mental health. And so we wondered what could we try differently? So we put our heads together. We had people with backgrounds in pastoral counseling, mental health counseling, and improv theater. My own experience was in training people around sales and a bunch of my sales clients will send me calls to listen in on how their people are talking to customers. And their question is always, what is it that people are doing that’s actually making a difference?

And what I discovered listening to these calls was a lot like what my friends in improv and pastoral counseling were telling me. So we gathered together three rules that we used for engagement in these calls. And we trained our college students to use them. And the first rule was whatever someone says, follow their clues. Listen to what it is they want to talk about. And all you have to do is listen for a word in their statement that might have been hot. Someone on the call says to you, my family might be coming this weekend. Tell me about your family. That reminds me of when we lived in Wyoming. What was that like? Right. Just curiosity. And so we were trying to teach these college students who are also anxious about being good performers, that it’s not about doing something right, because that leads us into a performance mindset.

And when you’re in a performance mindset, all you can think about is what you’re trying to do. But if you can get genuinely curious, this person that I’m talking to has something to teach me, and I’m going to listen to the clues they’re giving me, then something can happen that’s unexpected. My grandmother used to say, people are always trying to teach you how to love them. And in a sense, that’s what we were hoping these callers would do on the other end. And we would train them by playing games where we would give a sentence. My sister is trying to simplify her living situation. Simplify. She’s having trouble with her kids, trouble, to where finally they got to where they were really interested in figuring out what does this person want to talk about?

Can you imagine how lonely it might feel for you to always be broadcasting clues of where your points of connection are and no one hears them? And instead, persist in them trying to do something to you. Next, ask open questions. And by this, I mean not yes, no questions, not do you have kids, but tell me about your family. My counseling friend tells me that every yes, no question is just a version of, did you clean your room? It always feels a little challenging. It feels like there might be a wrong answer. And more than that, the closed-endedness of it makes you feel like you’re on the receiving end of an interrogation as though you’re being challenged or tested, whereas an open question is a way to invite a story. And so I’ve found this to be a very hard habit to form because I’ve got a lot of hypotheses in my head that I want to test by asking you yes, no questions. And that becomes your habit, it just sticks.

So we trained the college student callers to when you are starting to ask a yes, no question, assume the answer is yes. And ask the follow-up question. All right. Not do you have a family, but tell me about your family. Not is there someone handling this problem, but who’s taking charge of this? I find also in facilitation, that when you make generous assumptions, of course, there’s someone handling this, then you make it easier for the other folks to own when they’re afraid that something isn’t being done well. It’s less an admission of failure than it is sharing a concern. So we were training our students.

Another way we did it is just start your question with what or how. If you’ve got a yes, no question, just redo it with what or how and watch the difference it makes in how people respond. Can you imagine how lonely you would feel if all day people were testing you against their assumptions, their prejudices, their expectations? And that’s how it feels sometimes when we’re on the receiving end of a lot of multiple choice. The third rule is in some ways the most radical, which is just make a point and stop. A lot of these highly anxious, verbal young people that we were recruiting to make these calls are like all the rest of us.

They just kind of manage their anxiety by talking a lot. And if you’re not responding to the question they’re asking, they’re going to rephrase it. And then they may even give you a test answer. And we all have so much to say. And yet, if you can make a point and stop, it changes all of the chemistry of the situation, and the young people that I work with in sales and my students at the seminary are very quick to say yes, but silence is awkward. I think that is a story that someone tells that wants to keep us apart. My grandmother used to say, silence is what trust sounds like, because your willingness to give me time after you’ve made a point lets me know that you really care. And that this is a safe moment and you’re not afraid of what I might say or to be in silence with me. Silence is intimacy. My grandmother also famously said, “One point is a conversation. Two points is a speech.”

She might have said, three points is a sermon. So we trained these folks and we got to where it was fun to practice these rules. And they found that the calls were fun, that they were learning something. That they had a way of being with people that wasn’t about doing something right but about opening themselves and being present.

We did a follow-up study after we had run this experiment for a little more than a month. And what we discovered on the psychological follow-ups was a significant reduction in people’s loneliness. There’s something about this way of talking and listening that changed people’s self-assessment of how connected they were to other people. We also noticed a difference in anxiety. So perhaps there is something about this way of being with people that creates a unit of belonging, the smallest possible instance of connection. For those of us who are trying to make a difference in the world, by going around, picking up litter that we find by the street and you know who you are or all the other little things we’re doing that aren’t by themselves going to save us from impending in crisis.

But our way of hopefully engaging things for the sake of trying to make a difference, this is a way of loving people with micro affections, with small offers of belonging. And as often as you do this on the plane, in line at the grocery store, with your friends, you are not only going to be sharpening skills that will help you build the trust that allows people to make discoveries and decisions together more effectively, but you will also be spreading a hopeful kind of presence in the world that ultimately makes a difference. We wrote up the results of this study and they were published last April in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. And if you’d like to read more about how the study was conducted and the results that we got, you can check this out online.

A couple of years ago, I had an experience that I have to tell you about because as I reflect on my life, this is one of the most important things that ever happened. And I also tell you, because I’m not sure how it happened. It certainly wasn’t because of any effort of will on my part. It was suddenly like being there when something else was in charge.

I was flying from Austin to Chicago, and the guy that I was sitting next to on the plane was wearing work denim boots. He had a bristly black beard and a give-me cap. And on his tray top were three empty airplane vodka bottles. And we had not left the gate. And I thought I need to find something to read. So I was rummaging in my briefcase and it was like, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She said, this man has something important to say, and you’re the only one who hears him and you’re going to ignore him for two hours. And I dropped my magazine and I thought, I don’t know what to do.

And I felt this anxiety in the pit of my stomach. And I turned to the man and I opened my mouth. And what came out was, “Flying is scary.” And he looked at me like, what the hell? And then he looked at me like, who are you? And then he looked down at his lap and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “What are you scared of?” And he said, “I’m scared that my kids are growing up without me.” I said, “Tell me about your kids.” He has a daughter who’s nine, who dances. A boy who’s seven who plays baseball and a baby who bangs on pots in the kitchen. I said, “You love your children.”

He said, “My dad left home when I was 10 and I don’t want that to happen to them.” And I said, “Why would that happen?” And he said, “I go to North Dakota for two weeks at a time. And I think my wife has met someone else.” I said, “I’m sorry.”

He said, “Oil is a dirty business.” I said, “Dirty?” He said, “Yeah, my boss, he’s cheating us.” And he told me about how the paychecks didn’t add up. And I said, “That is really rough.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a dirty business.” And then he talked for a while and a lot started coming out and I started to feel this feeling of joy that this person was trusting me with something that was obviously very precious. And finally, about an hour into the conversation, he pulled himself up to his full height, turned on me, and said, “I don’t believe in global warming.”

And I said, “No, you don’t.” And then he relaxed. And I relaxed. And he said, “My friend was killed in the oil field.” I said, “Tell me about your friend.” And he described a beautiful friendship with a beautiful person that he obviously was still grieving. And later as we were descending in Chicago, he said, “Again, oil is a dirty business.” And I said, “What are we going to do about all that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?” And he said, “I don’t know, but we’ve got to figure that out.” And then we landed, pulled into the gate and I reached up to get my bag and this man without permission or warning hugged me.

And he said, “That helped.” And I said, “Yeah, that helped.” And I went out and sat in the gate and cried for a little while and then went to work. Belonging happened unexpectedly. And we can clear room for that spirit with some simple practices that take time to learn. It is within your power, not only as facilitators but in the way that spirit pervades all of your conversations to make the very real difference of extending the offer of hearing, seeing in the smallest ways, because in the end, that is all it takes scientifically to make a difference. Thank you.