#SSAEast Talk: Creating Interpersonal Social Support

Pre-talk set-up. Photo credit: Jessika
Pre-talk set-up. Photo credit: Jessika

[This is the talk I gave at the Secular Student Alliance conference. Or rather, these are my notes. I wandered off a touch from the script, and had incredible (but not included) questions for the end. Audio will be available soon!]


I’m Kate Donovan, and in about two sentences, I’m going to stop talking. I’m going to smile (see?) and stare pleasantly back at you, but I won’t speak for thirty seconds. I ask you to wait, without checking your phones, and urge you to notice how comfortable or uncomfortable you are.


You probably tolerated that because I’ve been asked to speak today. I was introduced, I’m standing up here in front of you, and my name’s in the program.

I spoke clearly, said what I was going to do, and I’ve been practicing doing this for the past two weeks, so I wouldn’t accidentally combust from the awkward slowly congealing in this room.

And it was palpable, wasn’t it? Some of you fidgeted, tried to guess how much longer. I spent about half that time counting down.
20 seconds.
….okay, now I can talk.

The first iteration of this talk didn’t have that introduction. I was going to walk up here, smile at you, and stare for thirty seconds. In the end, I changed it. I was too afraid that you would think little of me, or that someone, assuming I had stage-fright, would try to rescue me.

Because that is the human impulse, isn’t it? To fill the spaces? In research into conversations, a conversational lapse was three seconds. I just made you sit ten times longer.

And of course, it was to make a point — that slight changes in how we interact can massively impact how a conversation feels. In fact, the feeling of a conversation can be more important than the words themselves. I’ve just got a short span of time, so I’m going to go through a few ways you can make conversations supportive and caring. This can make or break the sense of closeness between group members: the difference between people who see each other once a week at meetings because you know, they did click “Attending” on that Facebook event…and people who confided in each other.

One of the things about forming a community with people—about creating relationships where you share parts of yourself with each other is creating a space where other people want to share parts of themselves with you.

We’re susceptible to what Cialdini called the click, whirr. Conversational silence? Fill it. We do it more quickly than we can recognize that it’s bothering us. For those of you in the audience who choose your words slowly, you might recognize what I’m talking about easily–you take a break to pick the next sentence and and someone else steps in for you. If you’ve ever had or have a stutter, people will try to give you words as you work on them.

Sitting with silence? Uncomfortable.

Think back to the beginning; hold on to that discomfort for a little while longer–we’re going to play with it.

First, come up with a time someone came to you in distress — freaking out about an exam, broke up with their partner…worried they might need to break up with their partner. You don’t even have to know them well—you know when someone you kind of know announces that bad things are happening? This is going to apply there too. And of course, the impulse is to fix it, right? Whatever the situation they’ve told you, it’s a Bad Thing and you don’t want the Bad Thing to keep happening.

Or maybe it’s not even to fix it, but to say the right thing. And I want to encourage us to change that framing. In fact, I want us, you know, us skeptics and stuff, to be better about collecting data about what helps. Let’s talk about evidence in one way. Remember when someone came to you upset? That scenario you pictured?

I think a lot of the time, we know that things won’t be so bad. Or they’re bad now, but they’ll get better. This is where you get stuff like “time heals all wounds” and “Stop stressing — it’s just one test!”

I want to talk about the importance negative validation. It sounds like a bad thing, right? Opposite of positive reframing, which is where you say “everything will be fine!” or “you know, this is just one test in the grand scheme of things!”

Actually, research in social psychology suggestions people in low places, or with low self esteem do worse with positive reframing, and do better with negative validation. Instead of trying to sound bright and chirpy, try repeating back the emotions they’re feeling:
“That just really sucks”
“Man, that sounds awful
And of course, you might not even have to agree with their assessment of their experiences.You might be pretty sure not everyone hates them, or think they’re misinterpreting what that friend meant. For that, there’s “It seems like that’s really hard for you” and “Wow, I bet it’s unpleasant to feel stuck with those feelings.”

To borrow from Allie Brosh, instead of pretending there aren’t dead fish in the room, you can all agree that they stink.
It’s the idea of not making it about sweeping the discomfort and negativity that’s in the conversation under the rug, but about sitting with that discomfort.

When we talk about the importance of an atheist community, one of the things we hear about is stories of how someone thought they were the only ones in their community who possibly felt this way – who had doubts or was an atheist, and how validating it was to find someone else who had been there. That the important part was the feeling of validation, that someone else was stepping into your corner, and saying they heard you.

And so this is a good step one, but what then? You can and possibly do have good advice. Maybe you have been there? And so again, I ask you to sit with the discomfort of feeling like this is a fixable problem that your advice would solve, and ask a simple question? “Is problem solving what this person is looking for?” And I don’t mean asking it internally, but saying “I think I might have something that could help. Do you want advice?” Instead of guessing about whether they want help, or have thought through the potential solutions, get some evidence! And if they say they don’t want advice? Hold it in. Maybe they’re just too overwhelmed, or they’ve asked ten other people for help. Or they came to you because they want to have someone in their corner, who can just not and offer hugs.

It’s hard to not give advice you think is great. But you can sit with that discomfort.  You did it for me fifteen minutes ago, for far longer than it takes to give validation, to squash the impulse to tell them how everything will be okay, to ask if your advice is needed.

We’re here at SSAEast because we’ve been part of this community, or we want to make one at our school. Let’s make it one that keeps us coming back, that nourishes one another when they share the hard parts of their lives, one, that says, you’re hurt? Let me sit with you and find out what you need.

And on that note, I’ll ask you to pause with me for a hair longer.

Thank you.

2 thoughts on “#SSAEast Talk: Creating Interpersonal Social Support

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