Terri Lonowski: 5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic
Feedback Loop: Feedback means letting the person know that you’ve taken some action on their behalf. This creates a bond of trust, respect and deep appreciation. If someone did something kind and helpful for you, with no strings attached when they clearly didn’t have to, would that feel good to you? Simply letting them know you took an action can give them confidence, empower their decision-making and strengthen your connection.
“The best way to pursue happiness is to help others. Nothing will make you happier.” ~ George Lucas, Creator of Star Wars
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Terri Lonowski, M.Ed..
Terri is an accomplished thought leader, whose body of work in evolutionary communication is timely, impactful and deeply relevant, given today’s chaos and ‘loneliness pandemic’. Terri has had the honor of leading national Human Centered Design teams, which embraced empathy and Design Thinking, to showcase workforce innovations for the Obama Administration at The White House not once, but twice.
Through this experience, professional and educational accomplishments, along with her own loneliness journey and inspiration from her Grandma Helga, Terri distinguished the five-elements of Soulful Listening™. When applied in our lives, these repeatable elements can ease feelings of loneliness, create fulfilling connections, and inspire greater human potential.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
First of all, I really appreciate the opportunity to share insights on this critically important topic. My entire life has led to a simple solution for the devastating impact of not really being heard. If just one person learns to listen in a way that has another realize how NOT alone they really are, we can have a better world for all of us. Millions of people are living in desperate, crushing loneliness; while businesses and authority figures are unwittingly squelching human potential.
Through the profound listening experienced with my Grandma Helga, I had the courage to step into a fuller potential and not accept limitations of my high school guidance counselor, who said, “Terri, you’re a small town girl and you’d get lost in a big city like Lincoln, Nebraska. You need to go to secretarial school and work at your family restaurant.” By having a wise grandmother to bounce that lie off of, I went on to:
Earn a M.Ed. in Educational Psychology — University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Chair the American Counseling Association Foundation, representing over 40,000 professional counselors nationwide; secure a gubernatorial appointment to the Nebraska State Workforce Investment Board; and lead national Human Centered Design teams not once, but twice, to showcase workforce innovations for the Obama Administration at The White House.
When I learned of the devastating impact of loneliness, I could not turn a blind eye and was inspired to create a better way forward. Reflecting on my education, career, relationships and what helped me thrive, despite the odds, it became clear there were major missing pieces in how we’ve learned to communicate.
Through that soul searching I created five elements of Soulful Listening™ that can help foster fulfilling connections, whether in the workplace, a romantic relationship, or with a family member.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One story that stands out involves synchronicity leading to speaking in Nice, France, last year. I marvel at how one casual conversation with a dear neighbor triggered an introduction to an influencer in Nice. This remarkable woman was seeking a speaker to address a multi-national group on the global loneliness epidemic and offer viable solutions. It was my first time to France and I was stirred that the event sold out, then moved to a larger venue and sold out once again. This experience further heightened my awareness of the universal need for human connection and the demand for a roadmap to navigate and embrace complexities of higher-level communication.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Great question! I actually believe there are no mistakes, simply opportunities to grow and learn.
Having said that, when I first bridged into the world of a business owner/founder/ entrepreneur I stubbed my toe so to speak, many times. Before all the foundational pieces for my new business were in place, I was asked to keynote a conference, which was scheduled only two weeks from then. For me, this invitation was a big deal. Heart pounding, feeling somewhat lightheaded, I accepted, without a clue on how to pull together the legal aspects of a business. On my way to the event, I was frantic and on the phone with my attorney finalizing the last piece of puzzle, necessary so that this infant company could receive payment. Whew! It was the first, but certainly not the last ‘under the wire’ moment in my journey as an entrepreneur.
An important takeaway from this experience is so beautifully reflected in a quote found in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, there are several projects that light me up and I’m excited to offer pearls of wisdom along the journey. My heart overflows with joy as each of the following move us closer to compassionate, evolutionary communication, inspired by Grandma Helga.
- Featured guest on upcoming episodes of top-tier podcasts
- In the process of developing an inspiring TEDx Talk on Soulful Listening™
- Speaker at a Soulful Listening™ 2020 virtual event, hosted by “Own Your Impact” of Nice, France, with attendees from five countries
Maya Angelou’s quote, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better” is poignant. By demystifying and sharing a better way of communicating, people then have the knowhow to do better. I remain committed to sharing the gift of deep listening as an antidote to loneliness.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority on the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
As I reflect back on this question, my personal experience feels like the most compelling qualifier. The current chaos and dysfunction feels personally all too familiar, because I grew up in chaos and painful loneliness. From the age of three on, I lived on the second floor of a stately mansion in the small country town of Auburn, Nebraska. I say second floor, because the family turned the first floor into a bustling restaurant, with clanging dishes, loud voices, banging, and wildness of late night bar crowds…right beneath my bedroom, EVERY night.
To the outside world it may have appeared a charmed life, and my warm, cheerful smile helped hide the dysfunction, abuse, alcoholism, and crushing loneliness. Others may have fared well, but for my gentler temperament, it was sheer agony. Beneath that façade, my heart was crying.
Without even being able to name it, what I wanted more than anything was to feel seen and understood by someone.
And there was one person who did…Grandma Helga.
She was my guiding light in the midst of chaos, pain, noisy confusion, and a sentence of damning limitations. Had she not heard me on a deep level and graciously offered her presence and wisdom, I would have not lived a life of great possibility. I intimately understand the transformative power of being heard on a deep level. Without this, all that I have offered and have yet to offer would have been squelched into smallness.
I know with every fiber of my being that the most powerful form of communication is listening. To me, listening is love in action. It’s NOT being silence and retreating; its profoundly listening and holding space for real connection, thereby diminishing loneliness in a real way. We don’t know we haven’t been heard, until we REALLY have been heard! Have you ever had a close friend, family member or favorite teacher listen to you with so much presence that if felt as if the whole world faded away, and it was just the two of you in a bright, warm, safe bubble?
If you’ve had such an experience, it’s hard to forget how it made you feel. The human nervous system thrives on connection. Sadly, however, most people have never experienced that level of intimacy. I wonder when the last time was when you felt heard in this way? All it takes is one person listening to you in an “all-in”, connected way and holding space for greater possibilities to change the trajectory of your life, the world, and that of generations to come. Grandma Helga was that person for me. I wonder who you might be that person for now? And, as importantly, how might you be that for yourself? Perhaps by embodying the five elements, shared later in this interview, it will help illuminate a pathway to connect and relate in a way that is missing in the world.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but also across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
- As humans, we are wired to thrive on feeling seen and heard. Isolation and loneliness strip away fulfilling this fundamental need and wreak havoc on our entire physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
- Loneliness can cause an increase in cortisol, which can “impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease”, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Unsurprisingly, loneliness is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society? And, reasons why are we are facing the loneliness epidemic?
People are dying, EVERY DAY! Underneath it all, people are NOT being heard.
I believe there is a solution underneath this gigantic problem that, in its simplicity, has gone completely unnoticed and I call it Soulful Listening™. Listening to people in this profound way is evolutionary and inspires greater human potential and encourages more open honest communication. In fact…“One Soulful Listening™ conversation has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life (and the world) forever.”
Now more than ever, my heart is breaking for millions and millions who are not heard. It’s tragic, resulting in staggering loss of human potential. The elemental truth is ~ we thrive on feeling heard and supported and until we have been, we fall short of all that we can become. A quick glance at today’s news shows the impact of people feeling disconnected from themselves and others, with an ache that is real. Some silently wither in their jobs, feel lonely and powerless in their relationships or desperately seek to escape their inner angst through chemical addictions, tragic divorces, mass shootings and suicides. Further, research by Cigna indicates that over half of Americans (almost 164 MILLION people) are lonely. And, the hardest hit are our youth with health implications equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Consider that for a moment. Those stats sat like a stone in my heart.
The world has changed and chaos is everywhere, we feel isolated even within our own communities and the superficial interactions on social media are falling short. We have countless platforms for our voices, and when we don’t feel heard we shout (LOUDLY). But, is anyone really listening?
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
Yes, it is a puzzling paradox. Never before have we had more technology to connect with almost everyone. However these superficial exchanges fall short…
- It’s easy to hide behind the anonymity of a social media post, leaving us feeling disconnected.
- The comparison trap seduces us into believing that the façade portrayed on an individual’s feed is what their life is really like. In this case, it’s easy to see why we feel inadequate and lonely.
- Although we have countless platforms on which to express ourselves (virtually), unless someone is really listening it’s like yelling into an echoing cave. The reciprocal nature of fulfilling exchanges is needed to diminish loneliness.
Ok. It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic? Please give a story or an example for each.
Over and over, in the smallest and biggest ways I have seen real connection be developed in a simple, focused and meaningful way, that is easily repeatable, it requires very little energy and returns tenfold what it takes to give. In my experience, a huge step toward solving the loneliness epidemic is to embody higher-level communication skills, supported by these five elements:
- Self-Care: Many think, “Oh, I don’t have time for self-care.” But that stems from a misunderstanding of what self-care actually is. Have there been times in your life when you felt more generous with others because you had enough rest, nourishment or care for yourself? Exactly. And there are SO many things we can do under the umbrella of self-care. It’s more than a bubble bath, and may include practices like:
- Creating healthy boundaries
- Being mindful of our thoughts and speech
- Taking care of our physical well being
- Cutting out negative media
- Giving social media a break
- Getting involved in regular physical activity
And so much more ~ self-care allows us to be centered, nourished and ready to…
2. Become Fully Present: Spiritual Leader, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Life is available only in the present moment.” When we are giving ourselves what we really need then the part of us distracted by on our own social, emotional or physical survival can relax; and we can give our full attention to another person — and focus entirely on our conversations. What a beautiful gift that can be for others. Taking a three slow breaths (in through your nose and out through your mouth) can be a simple practice to help become fully present.
When we truly take care of ourselves, and become fully present, we bring a quality of grace and compassion into every interaction, which allows for the third element…
3. Empathy and Active Listening: If empathy and active listening had a child, it would be this element of Soulful Listening™. Alfred Adler, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology said, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”
Deep, meaningful conversations call upon us to enter with openness and receptivity and to NOT play out both sides of a conversation, before it even begins. In the past it may have played out something like this: “Oh, he’ll say this and I’ll say that”.
4. Inspired Action: The Dalai Lama shares that “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.” We all have access to different connections, ideas or information that can be of enormous value to another on their life path. It’s easy for us to see someone else’s life path from a bird’s eye view and we can help them by making a phone call, an introduction to someone or just looking up information for them. Have you ever felt touched when someone took an action just for you?
All this leads to the…
5. Feedback Loop: Feedback means letting the person know that you’ve taken some action on their behalf. This creates a bond of trust, respect and deep appreciation. If someone did something kind and helpful for you, with no strings attached when they clearly didn’t have to, would that feel good to you? Simply letting them know you took an action can give them confidence, empower their decision-making and strengthen your connection.
“The best way to pursue happiness is to help others. Nothing will make you happier.”
~ George Lucas, Creator of Star Wars
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Imagine what a different world it would be if people felt safe to truly be themselves. Would hundreds of millions still feel as desperate to be heard and understood? Would there still be as many heartbreaking stories of mass shootings, addiction related deaths, paralyzing loneliness, and tragically hollow relationships?
I think not.
We have the ability to heal our families, improve our careers and have beautiful lives. I know we can because it’s built into whom we are as humans, to elevate and empower each other — and in doing so… we also do that for ourselves. I’m imagining inspiring a Soulful Listening™ movement, that fosters a world where:
- Self-care is a part of daily life, allowing people to be fully present with each other
- A world where businesses embrace the value of listening to their employees, offering a culture where it’s safe to share bold, creative, out of the box ideas
- A world where parents understand the power of empathy and active listening to create meaningful relationships with their children
- A world where lovers feel more trust and intimacy because they can engage in real conversations
- A world where the chaos is quieted and loneliness fades, because we are actually listening to one another in a way that matters
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Well, at the top of my list is Brene’ Brown! Her professional contributions, especially in areas of courage and vulnerability, are unparalleled. What an honor it would be to share in a vulnerable, engaging conversation with the best of the best. I’m imagining our time together would be rich with insights, laughter, and a deeply soulful connection. And from there, who knows what possibilities might open up?
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