[Sunday Assembly Chicago] Talk Notes, Citations, Oddments

[General version of what I’m saying at Sunday Assembly Chicago today. Yes, the footnotes start at 2. I edited and didn’t want to go fix all superscripts at 6 am this morning.]

Good morning!

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–an order of magnitude longer.

We’re susceptible to what Cialdini called the click, whirr2. 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.

What does it feel like? For me, it’s a pressing feeling of wrongness, the sort that feels like “do something, do something, do something” It’s not that things are uncomfortable, it’s that if I don’t do something right now, I’m failing.

And unfortunately, that do something impulse is actually what leads me to pick the Wrong Thing.

I’m going to borrow an example from Allie Brosh here. She writes in her fabulous book/blog about her experience of telling people about being depressed…and describes it like a conversation about dead fish with tenuous connection to reality.

Allie: My fish are dead.
Person: Oh, but have you looked over here?
Allie: But they’re dead.
Person: Let’s keep looking!
Allie: Looking is for lost fish. My fish are dead.

This is, well, a hyperbolic example. It’s emotional incongruence. Allie says something she feels is sad/negative/not good, and Person responds with something far too offbeat. Allie wants acknowledgement that her fish are dead–Person is uncomfortable with dead fish, so opts to start a search party of possibly-lost-but-definitely-not-dead fish.

Let’s pull a different example from the same story. Allie is suicidal. She’s decided she needs to tell someone about it. And so she does. And suddenly the person is SO UPSET AND ISN’T THIS AWFUL. And Allie finds herself comforting the person, who is so uncomfortable with her suicidalness that they have to show it and Allie just needs them to stop showing it, but argh.

And, not-unreasonably, we chuckle at the let’s-make-a-map-and-find-those-fish person. Of course the fish are dead, mapmaker, we say. Except, it’s quite likely that the mapmaker was sitting with similar discomfort to us five minutes ago. They’d heard something terrible (Allie had depression/her fish were dead!) and they wanted to fix it! Right then! Because they loved Allie and depression is bad and they didn’t want Allie to be in a bad place!

Similarly, the person Allie told about being suicidal felt bad. You don’t react flippantly to someone wanting to kill themselves, do you? That’s upsetting! So they got upset.

Okay, so, you’re always going to lose right? Someone tells you something sad like being depressed, and you’re too upbeat. Someone tells you something sad, you’re too sad in response. And how the heck were you supposed to know that the right response to a suicidal person was to be noncommittal and the same person’s depression needed a sad response?

There’s a solution! And it involves science! (I didn’t want to wander off onto this track in the talk, but while this sounds gimmicky, it replicates over3 and over4 and over5 and is taught as a microskill to therapists Aren’t footnotes fun?)

Instead of reacting in the way that removes your discomfort, take a deep breath. You might have to sit with it, at the price of seeming more empathetic

Mirroring. Are they taking long pauses between words? Try that in return. Pitch? High? Low? Do what you can to match it.

[A demonstration exists here–it stretches the abilities of my creative punctuation use to convey.]

What about their hands and legs? Posture? Do they have both hands on the table? In their lap? Legs crossed? Make like a mirror and match. In fact, the nonverbal part seems to convey empathy and caring even more strongly than verbal. Lean forward a little.

(A single exception–arms crossed over the chest–you likely don’t want to mimic the universal body language for “I’m deeply uncomfortable.” I usually go for loosely cupping my opposite forearms, which sounds extraordinarily weird. In practice, if you can’t picture that, I look like I’m cradling something.)

And look, it will probably feel a little stilted and weird to do, like acting a part. Remember the discomfort at the beginning? We’re still sitting with it in the pursuit of serving others. In fact, you might consider being even more explicit about it: “I’m not sure how you feel about this. Do you want me to offer advice? or commiserate with you? because this situation sounds like it would make me pretty upset”. There’s an important distinction there–I’m not performing or showing that upsetness at the person–putting them in a position where they’ll click, whirr into comforting me–I’m telling them what my current picture of their emotions is, and then letting them correct me.

[personal anecdote I’m going to leave off this blog]

Okay! But what if you have a slightly different problem. You’re getting overwhelmed by people and charities and everyone else who wants to tell you about their problems or have a serious discussion over dinner or just have the amount of money you would have spent on a cup of coffee.

And who says no to these things? (or, at the very least, a guiltless no?) One of my favorite writers, a Chicagoan who goes by the nym Captain Awkward writes about how “No” is a full sentence. And it is. It’s just a nearly impossible sentence to utter in isolation.

You’re supposed to want to help grieving friends, right? Give to charity? Support ill relatives? The thing is, I’m totally on board with social pressure pointing in this direction. I want people to do these things! Except that I want them to do these things in ‘enough but not too much so that they burn out’ increments, and also not feel resentful and guilty.

Burnout, that feeling of emotional exhaustion–not being able to find any well of empathy or caring or energy to dredge up investment in others–isn’t, as many people conceptualize it, from having lots of contained crises. While those will certainly exhaust you, they’re the terrifying spice of life, as it were. What overwhelms people, we’ve found, is the chronicity of stress. Of having people lean on your day in and out. And once emotional exhaustion has set in, it’s near impossible to give yourself the space to recover. It’s too easy to feel guilty from stepping back…and then there you are, without many emotions left but bone-deep tired and guilt.

But that discomfort! That do something do something do something!

I’m going to ask you to sit with it again.

You’ve got a friend who’s had a traumatic breakup and wants to talk. A relative who’s collecting money for a charity that supports an illness they’ve had.

Do something do something do something! Say yes! Write a check! Spend hours listening!

Deep breath.

Yes, by all means, do something! But do something effective that gives you emotional range to spare for yourself, for the next friend with a life crisis and that other charity you care more about, or next month’s rent.

Create an emotional buffer. Be nice to your future self, and arrange for some space. That charity Cousin James wants to tell you about? You’re really busy, but could he send you an email? You want to talk to work friend, but you’ve been having a really overwhelming week–what if they scheduled an hour to tell you all about it over coffee next week?

The goal here isn’t to give you space to ignore the email or never hear about the breakup–it’s to get space in a way that sounds like “I want to hear about you in ways that mean I can serve you best”

You can sit with that discomfort. You did it for me fifteen minutes ago, for far longer than it takes to ask for an email, mimic the posture of the person across from you, squash your impulsive emotional reaction, schedule coffee for another day.

We’re here at Sunday Assembly, nonreligious but waking up early and inconveniencing ourselves with the CTA here because we want to create an intentional community. Let’s make it one that keeps us coming back, that nourishes one another without burning out, that says, you’re hurt? Let me sit with you.

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

Thank you.

[ack. I fiddled with the ending up to the last minute. Will update afterwards.]

General Notes: There were a LOT of things I couldn’t fit into 15-20 minutes, including:
-More thoroughly discussing ego depletion
-forced choices in response to distressed people you want to help
-I didn’t even consider trying to make a talk that covered all the above and this, but effective altruism. I’m also wildly underqualified to discuss, but it’s easy to find information. Google away!
-possibly some of the above stuff I’d planned to talk about, who knows–this was prepared ahead of my talk

Other Sources for This Sort of Thing:

Real Social Skills
Captain Awkward


2. Cialdin, R. B. (1984). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

4. Feese, S., Arnrich, B.,  Troster, G., Meyer B., & Jonas, K. (2011) Detecting posture mirroring in social interactions with wearable sensors. In proceeding of: 15th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC 2011), 12-15 June 2011, San Francisco, CA, USA

5. Trout, D.L., & Rosenfeld, H. M. (1980) The effect of postural lean and body congruence on the judgement of psychotherapeutic rapport. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 4, 176-190.

6. Maurer, R. E. & Tindall, J. H. (1983). Effect of postural congruence on client’s perception of counselor empathy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30, 158-163.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.
(specifically the Interpersonal Effectiveness Handouts)

Antonides, G., Verhoef, P.C., & van Aalst, M. (2002). Consumer perception and evaluation of waiting time: A field experiment. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12, 139-202.

Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.



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