The room was silent, except for the sound of my own breath. I stood in front of a stranger, staring deeply into his clear blue eyes. I wondered if he was as nervous about this as I was.

We weren’t on a date. We were both at a recent “authentic relating” session in Ardmore.

As my partner and I gazed into each other’s eyes, I searched myself for signs of increased empathy. I thought about how odd this must look to the passersby of Common Space, a community center off Lancaster Avenue.

We were joined by 13 other people in making prolonged eye contact, a staple exercise of authentic relating — gatherings designed to help foster meaningful connections. Philadelphia’s first authentic-relating meetup group started in 2015 and currently has nearly 800 members.

Beyond pointed staring, authentic relating exercises encourage attendees — who are often strangers — to push their emotional boundaries. Participants state their feelings aloud, engage in active listening, ask deeply personal questions, and reveal the thoughts and feelings they have in common.

“Authentic relating allows us to feel safe and be vulnerable in a way we’re not used to,” says Rachel Whitworth, founder and facilitator of local outfit Let’s Be Authentic. “A lot of people operate from a place of pain throughout their daily lives — but at sessions, we check that stuff at the door. We try to see each other as we really are and lean into that in a loving, supportive way.”

Making connections

Make no mistake: Authentic relating is not group therapy.

It’s not about baring your soul to a room full of strangers. You do not have to talk about your painful divorce, the promotion you were passed over for, or how your child doesn’t call as often as you’d like. You can talk about those, if you feel comfortable doing so.

The real goal, according to Center City psychotherapist Ashley King, is to equip participants with skills that help them build intimacy and richness in their emotional lives. The sessions are also meant to create spaces where connections can form more readily.

“We tend to think of connection as something that simply happens or doesn’t,” says King, who has been running sessions in Philadelphia for a few years. “But it’s a skill that we can cultivate.”

A few years ago, Whitworth found herself craving deeper, more authentic connections with people. She took to the internet, searching for events and groups that might lead her to those, despite not really knowing the specifics of what she was looking for.

Eventually, she stumbled across an authentic relating event. Whitworth was intrigued by its promise of a chance to create real connections with strangers over the course of a few hours. The only problem? It was in Colorado, one of the places that authentic relating spread to after getting its start in San Francisco in the 1990s.

“I was just left with this intense curiosity for what it was,” Whitworth says. “Eventually I found a one-off event in Philadelphia that I was able to go to, and I left knowing that I wanted more.”

The session Whitworth attended inspired her to get involved with New York City’s authentic relating community. She received training to become a facilitator and started Let’s Be Authentic in June. People began regularly attending almost immediately. She tries to host at least two sessions a month, one in Center City and one in Ardmore.

Opting out — and in

Speaking to strangers about things you might not even share with your closest friends may seem daunting, but the pros say that their number-one priority is making sure you know that you have a choice in how deeply you choose to participate. Exercises are meticulously explained, and people often ask questions. If someone is uncomfortable, he or she can alter the exercise to fit their needs.

“Part of the practice is to stand up for yourself and recognize things like, ‘This feels good, this doesn’t feel so good,’ ” King says.

According to Whitworth, honoring yourself — or not doing anything that feels inauthentic or uncomfortable — ranks as one of the most important facets of an authentic-relating session.

That means if you don’t want to accept closed-eyes hugs from strangers, you can wrap your arms around yourself or place your name tag on your back. If staring deeply into the eyes of a stranger for two minutes straight without speaking feels too intense, you’re welcome to take a seat.

“Eye contact is always a challenge,” says Harikesh Muralidhar, a 28-year-old start-up analyst who attended the recent Sunday-afternoon session in Ardmore. “But the longer you make eye contact with one person, the less of a big deal it is.”

Muralidhar stumbled across authentic relating in May while trying to expand the number of meetups he attended. He wasn’t sure what to expect at his first session, but he enjoyed having an outlet to express himself and seeing that other people share his thoughts and feelings. Since then, he’s been to approximately 10 sessions — and he feels he’s grown.

“I’ve gotten better at communicating how I feel during the events,” he says. “So then I can say the same things to people in my personal life because I’ve already said it out loud once, kind of like practice.”

Participants at the Ardmore session reported leaving with the belief that people can be kind, empathetic, and honest. Many of them particularly enjoyed the experience of asking — and fielding — personal questions. It was nice to experience unabashed curiosity from strangers, they said.

“Typically, people are way more surprised in the direction of, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that was possible,’ ” King says.

Try it yourself:

Let’s Connect (A Sample of Authentic Relating). 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16. WeWork, 1601 Market St. Tickets are free for WeWork members and $25 until the event. They can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

Authentic Playtime! 7:15 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17. Common Space, 25 Rittenhouse Place. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased on at eventbrite.com.

Deep Space: An Evening of Human Connection Games. 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18. Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square. Tickets are $35 to $45 and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

An Evening of Authentic Relating. 7:15 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30. A Culture Factory, 333 Morgan St., Phoenixville. Tickets are $20 to $30 and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

An Afternoon of Authentic Relating. 12:45 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3. Common Space, 25 Rittenhouse Place. Tickets are $30 to $40 and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

What to expect during an authentic-relating session:

  • Diversity. People of all ages, genders, and ethnicities come to authentic relating sessions, according to Whitworth. She says most of her sessions are a 50/50 mix of people who have done it before and people who are attending for the first time.
  • Consent. Before any authentic relating session, facilitators go over agreements that set up the safe space. They invite people to lean into their discomfort and remind them that they should respect their own needs and others’ needs. And of course, confidentiality is expected.
  • Breaking it down. After every activity, facilitators give people a chance to discuss their reactions and feelings, so you can share any thoughts on what you’ve experienced. 
  • Different kinds of interactions. A standard authentic relating session may include activities with both the entire group and smaller groups. You may also work with just one other person. And there are reflective activities that are more inwardly focused as well.
  • Warm, fuzzy feelings. You shouldn’t expect to walk out of an authentic relating session with a new best friend, but you can expect to leave feeling connected and cared for. Whitworth says she likes to end every session with something nourishing, like hugs or verbal appreciation.