Have a conversation with the other person to learn their needs. It can be as simple as saying, “I’d like to do what I can to make this difficult time a bit easier for you. What are a few things that help you feel calm or happy or loved?” The guidance you get from someone who’s a boisterous extrovert may really differ from the requests you might get from an easily overstimulated and pensive introvert. Encourage the other person to be candid and specific in describing what makes them feel cared for, and then offer them exactly that in your words and actions.
As a part of my series about the the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kat Vellos.
Kat is an experience designer, speaker, author and facilitator with a passion for cultivating community and designing experiences that help others connect more authentically. A prolific community-creator, she founded Better Than Small Talk and Bay Area Black Designers which was profiled in Forbes. Her debut book We Should Get Together has been helping adults around the world create fulfilling friendships that last.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Igot my degree in graphic design then spent a few years as a graphic designer and editorial art director for an award-winning investigative newsmagazine. But I wanted to feel like I was making a bigger impact in the world. So I spent some time designing and facilitating experiential learning programs for non-profit organizations that prioritized education, social justice, creative expression and personal development.
During that time, the iPhone was invented and the world of design adapted to new realities. A little while later, I came back to digital design full-time, with a passion to combine my expertise as a visual designer with my passion for helping people get their needs met, and UX (User Experience) Design was the perfect way to share my combination of skills. This practice allows me to create design solutions by learning deeply about the problem and the people affected by it.
I currently use my UX design expertise to combat the loneliness epidemic by making contributions to the social wellness space. My recently-released book alongside my coaching practice, speaking engagements, and consulting work all focus on helping people experience greater wellness and fulfillment through the cultivation of thriving platonic relationships.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In early January 2020, I released my book, We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships. It was welcomed to the world with open arms. I was blessed with requests for collaboration, coaching and speaking gigs all aligned around the same mission as the book: helping people create more resilient connections and community in their personal and professional lives. The volume of opportunities and the amount of travel they required made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to work a full-time job and also say yes to these opportunities. But I couldn’t imagine saying no. So I left my job as a designer at Slack to do this work full time. Three weeks later the coronavirus pandemic spread to every continent on the planet, surprising me and every other human-serving business on the earth. It’s affected the narrative of every conversation I have.
For example: At first, I was doing this work solely to battle the loneliness epidemic. Recent studies report that 61% of Americans report feeling lonely on a regular basis — a statistic that increased nearly 10 percent since I first started researching the topic for my book. That is something that needs to be taken seriously — loneliness causes as much stress as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is estimated to cost the US healthcare system $7 billion a year.
Now, with the widespread enactment of quarantine rules and precautionary self-quarantines, even more people will feel the pain of disconnection from others. I completely endorse the guidance from health officials that we need to practice physical distancing for a long time so we can quell the spread of the virus, but I’m very concerned about the long lasting impacts of this isolation on survivors’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
When you do work that focuses on helping others through challenges, it can be easy to internalize their struggles and carry a chronically high stress level. Doing so increases the amount of cortisol and inflammation in your own body. So it’s important to have rituals for unplugging, compartmentalizing, and pushing stress hormones out of your body either through physical exertion, meditation, or an activity that you find stress-relieving like art, journaling, playing music, or gardening.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
- Rename “sick days” as “wellness days” and allow staff to use them for anything that benefits their health and wellbeing. It’s important to remember that health doesn’t just refer to our physical body. For the majority of my life I’ve rarely gotten sick, whereas other people I know seem to catch colds every other week. A person may be physically well but struggling with emotional or mental health challenges, which are of course, invisible. Workers dealing with emotional or mental health issues deserve the opportunity to use wellness days to care for their wellbeing, too.
- Get to know your staff to understand their needs while respecting their privacy and boundaries. Treat all requests for wellness time equally. Monitor your language and assumptions to be sure that you don’t stigmatize people who use wellness days for non-physical needs. This often happens when a person says they need a sick day and someone else replies, “yeah I hear something’s been going around” which assumes that the other person is dealing with a cold or flu, and subtly pressures the other person to claim that this is their reason for needing a day off. It’s no one’s business why someone wants to use a wellness day. Also avoid making any comments that your staff member “doesn’t seem sick” when they say they need a wellness day. Treat all wellness efforts as valuable ones, because they are.
- Give your staff chances to cultivate colleague relationships that share the same qualities of healthy friendships: trust, belonging, true connection, personal expression, autonomy, mutuality, and feeling known for one really is. You can support this in a variety of ways, such as making thoughtful project assignments, giving teamwork exercises, and allowing a team to self-organize to solve any work-related problem of their choosing. Give accolades for a variety of achievements, such as depth of cooperation and most divergent thinking, instead of awarding singular individuals who “beat the others out” by excelling in well-trod territory.
- Invite your staff to share their invisible strengths. Our work careers last for years, and along the way, we pick up many talents and abilities that may exceed the demands of our current jobs. Those gifts still exist, even when they’re not being actively used and they help make us who we are. Our jobs can often be such a one-dimensional experience where we’re only known for the single job description that we got hired for. So create ways for your staff to learn about each others’ work histories. This can be over a team lunch, or as highlight portion of a weekly team huddle agenda.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
A huge number of books have made a significant impact on me, but the one that applies the most when it comes to maintaining serenity in anxious times would be The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. In it, he outlines how the nuanced and deliberate practice of self-discipline, the intentional practice of love as an action, and the grateful acknowledgement of grace all work together to guide us on the path to becoming our highest selves. This book was given to me by a manager when she learned about my love for personal development and self-reflection, which the book is all about. Nearly every challenge in my life can be addressed by referring to a lesson on this book’s pages. I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about exploring their patterns and being in a perpetual practice of growth and development.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The upcoming fears of an impending coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Here are five steps you can start using today to develop serenity during these challenging and uncertain times.
Cultivate your connection to yourself. When was the last time you listened to the call of your spirit? When was the last time you heard the deepest wish of your heart? Times like these, when we are surrounded by stories that remind us of the precious fleeting experience of being alive, help us remember that we are on this earth for some reason. Take quiet time to connect to your core sense of being. When you’re overwhelmed by the news, turn it off for a while and let yourself appreciate the fact that if you’re even reading the news, it means that you’re alive. Cherish that fact.
Cultivate your connection to others. I really wish that the health officials who came up with the term “social distancing” had used the more accurate term “physical distancing” instead since that’s what they’re referring to when they say to stay more than 6’ away from other people. It’s crucial that in our most challenging times (pandemic, for example), that we maintain strong social and emotional bonds with others. If you’ve neglected the relationships that matter to you, now more than ever, is the time to nurture them. Give people your attention from a distance via phone calls, video calls, written cards and letters. When you have conversations, be sure that you don’t only talk about the worst of the news. Learn new things about each other, such as your fondest memories and biggest dreams. Express the words in your heart that you don’t tell anyone. Make sure people know how much they mean to you.
Cultivate your connection to the world. One of my favorite ways to do this is by observing nature, from the very large to the ultra tiny. Last week I did this by waking up early and taking myself on a walk around a regional park that I really love in the Berkeley/Oakland hills. Inhaling the spicy scent of the eucalyptus and pine trees made me feel warm and grounded. Looking at the water glimmering with sunshine felt like I was being given sparkling jewels from a benevolent universe. Paying attention to nature when I’m feeling overwhelmed always helps to calm down my racing heart and exhale the stress in my body. It helps me appreciate my own life and all life on our planet. Consider for a moment that in this very moment, you are held in place by a perfect dose of gravity on a planet whose atmosphere is the exact kind you need to stay alive, in a solar system whose sun is the exact distance away that it grows every kind of food you need to sustain your entire lifetime — and all of this happens for free with no effort of your own. Miracles like this can bring enormous feelings of grace, calm, and wonder — if we pause long enough to take them in.
Take a wider perspective. Allow yourself plenty of breaks from the news. Give yourself the gift of occasionally putting your mind on something else. Choose any other subject that will give your brain a much needed break. One method that always helps me keep perspective in scary geopolitical times is reading about history. Not just recent history, such as the events of the last hundred years or so, but deep history. I love to read about the history of the earth, dinosaurs, the solar system, and humans who were alive hundreds or thousands of years ago. Taking a long view at the passing of time helps me accomplish the final step below.
Accept that everything is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. Not that itch on our nose that we’re trying not to scratch, not this pandemic, not our lives, not even our solar system (our sun is only likely to last another five billion years or so). None of this will last forever. That’s ok. That’s how it was always meant to be.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Undoubtedly there will be other people in your life who are feeling anxious in a time like this. By being vulnerable and nurturing your relationships you can help them — and likely yourself — to weather the storm.
- First, talk. Have a conversation with the other person to learn their needs. It can be as simple as saying, “I’d like to do what I can to make this difficult time a bit easier for you. What are a few things that help you feel calm or happy or loved?” The guidance you get from someone who’s a boisterous extrovert may really differ from the requests you might get from an easily overstimulated and pensive introvert. Encourage the other person to be candid and specific in describing what makes them feel cared for, and then offer them exactly that in your words and actions.
- Encourage the other person to make sure their basic needs are being met. Often, we feel shaky, anxious and irritable when we lack adequate hydration, food, or rest. If you live together, offer to make your loved one a snack, a warm beverage, and encourage them to rest especially if you know they’re missing out on getting enough sleep. If you live apart, try sending gentle reminders via text.
- Invite them to get some movement with you. If you live apart and are adhering to physical distance guidelines or quarantine rules, have a long distance dance party. Call each other and take turns each naming a great dance song. Then you each play it on your end, and put your phones down while you dance, shake, wiggle, and shimmy to the music. Dancing is a powerful way to reduce stress increase endorphins, and boost your immune system. Plus, it sounds much more fun than “exercise” even though it’s that too.
- Write a card or letter to express your feelings. Make it clear in black and white, how much you care about them, and how open you are to supporting them through a hard time. Even if they are shy to open up or ask for help, it means a lot to get a very clear and irrefutable message that someone else is thinking about you, cares about you, and is there if you need them. Offer that gift generously to others.
- Laugh together. It may be hard to get in a silly mood when things around you are looking grim, but even a tiny moment of levity can go a long way towards shouldering shared struggles. If a cancer patient can make comedy about her challenges, then you and those around you have permission to laugh about something right now too. Whether it be a silly movie, a hilarious podcast, humorous novels, or telling stories about the escapades you got into during your school years, give each other the gift of genuine laughter and smiles.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
There are a number of really excellent instagram accounts that share inspiring and relatable messages that are helpful for dealing with anxiety. I like them because in a single 2-second moment, you can get a quick jolt of healthy perspective and encouragement to lift your spirits throughout the day. Unlike some other account that only focus on the struggles and despair, these ones acknowledge the challenges of anxiety in a relatable way while also planting seeds of hope for better days ahead. Check out: @quotesbychristie, @adviceforartists, @blackfemaletherapists, @namicommunicate, @givekoya and @selfcareisforeveryone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Growing up I often heard the famous saying of Persian origin, “this too shall pass.” Nine years ago when I did my first Vipassana ten-day silent meditation retreat, the teacher also instructed us to remember the ephemerality of all things with the phrase “this will change also.” Even though it was incredibly challenging to practice meditation for more than eight hours a day, it was also a perfect setting for practicing acceptance of that lesson in transcendence. It can feel scary to accept this truth of ephemerality because it means that we will have to let go of things we hold dear. But this realization also has the potential to liberate us from mental and emotional suffering.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
My biggest hope — with releasing my book and with all the work I do to help people cultivate platonic relationships — is to spark a connection revolution. I sense that because the covid19 pandemic is literally forcing people apart physically, it will highlight just how much we need each other. I hope that when we emerge from these dark days, we’ll see a resurgence in connection.
My greatest wish is for everyone who feels isolated and disconnected now to experience more high quality connection and belonging than ever before once these difficult days are behind us. May our now silent and anonymous neighborhoods one day glow with warmth, song and laughter. May lackluster acquaintanceships made gray by endless small talk blossom with rich and robust heart-connecting conversations. May kindness and compassion go viral. May our ancestors look back on this moment and marvel at there ever being a time when humans were anything but connected in love and unity.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!