The Listening Table: Where anyone can come by and share what’s on their mind


“If someone wants to talk, they can sit down and I will listen to them for as long as they would like to. Some people talk for five minutes. Some people talk for an hour and a half,” says The Listening Table’s founder Orly Israel. Photo courtesy of Orly Israel.

Orly Israel’s Listening Table is unassuming. It’s plastic, it’s gray, and it folds. Two handwritten signs are taped to the front. They read “here to listen” and “no judgment, no advice, no charge.” 

“I don't try and beckon people over. If someone wants to talk, they can sit down and I will listen to them for as long as they would like to. Some people talk for five minutes. Some people talk for an hour and a half,” says Israel, 28, on a recent afternoon in Hermosa Beach. 

To date, he’s hosted 86 listening tables. It’s all part of his quest to figure out what makes a good listener and how to better connect with others. He’s learning by practicing, one Saturday afternoon by the beach at a time. All he does is pay attention and listen — the opposite of what he says usually happens in conversation. 

“The three things people would normally do when someone shares something with them is: Tell them their opinion on it, tell them it's not that big a deal, or tell them something about themselves. Not a lot of time is [spent] having deep conversations or giving proper attention to something if someone shares something important,” Israel explains. 

The inspiration behind his listening table first sparked as a teenager, when he watched tense discussions transform into arguments. 

“Someone would say something, and then it just spins out. … You didn't really mean that, but you said it. And now the other person hears what you said, and not what you meant, and all of a sudden a spiral happens.”

Israel has worked for the past few years in TV development, but over time, he’s become more interested in how people communicate. In 2021, he volunteered with Freedom to Choose, an in-prison program dedicated to facilitating mindful conversation through compassion.

How do they do it? Among other things, holding what looks a lot like listening tables. He took part in a few sessions, including one at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. 

One moment in particular stuck out from the experience — he saw a sign that said three words: mad, hurt, love. Israel explains, “The thought was basically: If you're feeling mad, it's probably because you're feeling hurt. And if you're feeling hurt, it's probably the best thing you love is being threatened.”

While that idea seemed like common sense to Israel, he says the volunteer next to him had his mind blown.

“I sat for X amount of time thinking ‘this program is amazing and it's only for people in prison. How is this possible?’ So many of us could use this that aren't in prison.”

So he decided to take those skills, and in interest in human communication, and set up his first listening table in November 2021. He posted up in El Segundo.

“I wanted to sit out in public and let a stranger talk to me and see, ‘Am I going to judge them? Am I going to want to give them advice? What do I want to get out of this?’ And let those feelings come up and recognize them inside and then put them over to the side,” Israel says.

A few weeks later, he was talking about the listening table with a friend, who suggested he volunteer with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. It’s there that Orly learned another skill the hotline staffers call “sitting in the dark.”

“So sitting in the dark is instead of being like, ‘Oh, let's not talk about that. That sounds like such a painful experience. I don't want to make you feel worse.’ Instead of trying to take that conversation to a positive place, it is to really lean into the dark place,” says Jin Kim, a shift supervisor with the hotline who trains volunteers. 

Leaning into that dark place also involves asking hard questions to explore where the other person is coming from. Kim uses the example of a caller being bullied. Volunteers might ask, “‘What do you mean by someone bullying you? What do they do? What did they say? They make you feel bad about yourself? What's an example of something they said recently that made you feel bad about yourself?’”

Israel says the skill translates to the listening table: “The strategies that they teach at the suicide hotline are so, so good and so useful. But they aren't one size fits all,” he explains.

He says sometimes in everyday conversation, it isn’t clear what’s being communicated or what’s needed. So he argues it can be better to just ask.

“You don't have to have unspoken agreements in conversations. If someone wants advice, you can ask for advice. Or if someone doesn't know if they're supposed to give advice, you can ask people, ‘Hey, I just heard you talk about this for a couple minutes. … Do you want me to be coming up with solutions to this, or do you want me to just hear this with you?” 

When Israel kicked off his Listening Table project, he started posting reflections of each session on Instagram. Eventually, the internet noticed. Now, nearly 100,000 people follow him on the platform. 

With so much time and energy invested in listening, you have to wonder if Israel would be suited to become a therapist. He doesn’t think so.

“Being a therapist seems like it's kind of exhausting,” he says. “It sounds like you sit around all day listening to people's problems.” In fact, he says, becoming a therapist would be antithetical to what he’s trying to prove — that anyone can be a better listener.

“If I become one, I become the opposite of what I'm trying to be, which is someone who's not a therapist or not a psychologist, who can connect with people. I'm trying to say: You don't have to be a therapist or psychologist to be able to have a great conversation with a family or friend, or be there for someone who needs you,” Israel says

He argues that we’re all experts, but even if we don’t know it yet. “Everyone has these tools built-in,” Israel explains. “I think that makes it really accessible for people to say, ‘Look, you're already a master at this. You just don't know how to use it as well as you can.’”