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Rising Stars: Meet Ashley Kirsner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ashley Kirsner.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
Six years ago, I was volunteering at a suicide hotline when I noticed that no matter what people called in about, people didn’t feel comfortable talking about the “real stuff” with the people they already knew; they’d happily tell their life stories to a stranger, but they’d be afraid to share their struggles with their friends or family. They didn’t want to feel judged, so they would just hide these really important parts of themselves.

So, I wondered if I could host an event designed to act like what I call the “vulnerability gym.” I wanted it to be a place where people practiced being open and honest about themselves so that they could go back to their spouses, family, friends, etc., and be a little more open with them.

My background happened to be in psychology research, so I knew that opening up to people actually makes you feel *much* closer to them. Have you ever felt like people didn’t really “get” some important part of yourself? Chances are, when that happened, you felt lonely. And on the other hand, have you ever felt like someone really understood a part of you that you didn’t really show other people? Chances are, you felt really close to them. And that’s a beautiful experience I wanted to make more accessible to more people.

That was my rationale when I tried hosting a picnic where we used question prompt cards that I developed based on psychology research to help you get closer to people. They had questions on them like, “Describe yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you,” or, “If you could give your ten-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?” And we had a lot of structure (kind of like a speed-dating event, where you talk to one person at a time for about ten minutes, and you get to meet a lot of different people) so meeting new people wouldn’t be awkward.

I’d expected that at best, maybe just a few of my Facebook friends might show up out of support (or maybe just pity). I thought I was the only one who wanted to “Skip the Small Talk.” But before I knew it, we had hundreds of people interested and we sold out fifty tickets weeks in advance. It was supposed to be a three-hour-long event, but we had to kick people out after seven hours because they didn’t want to stop talking! I knew we were onto something.

I didn’t expect to host another event when I’d originally planned it, but people kept asking me to, so I hosted another one. People kept showing up, so I kept hosting them, and here we are, six years later!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
We’ve been so incredibly lucky that we’ve experienced fairly smooth sailing overall.

The cities where we host these have been ridiculously supportive– we always get a ton of folks asking how they can help, spreading the word for us, showing up to our events, and offering us feedback on how to improve. Our local communities are *the* reason why we’re successfully hosting events in 10+ cities as of writing this (and growing); there’s no way we could do this by ourselves!

That said, one of the biggest struggles was when Covid-19 hit. We had an event planned for March 2020, and it was supposed to be in person. We had to quickly pivot and figure out how to turn it into an online event.

It wasn’t perfect at first– for example, we hadn’t yet learned about Zoom fatigue, so we had to learn the hard way that 2.5 hours online is not the same as 2.5 hours in person! Since then, we’ve learned so much more about making great online events, and yes, we did cut our events down significantly to be just about an hour-long!

But in some ways, even having to move our events on Zoom was a gift. We received a lot of feedback from disability communities that the online events are more accessible for some folks, so we plan to continue our worldwide online events in addition to our in-person events indefinitely so that we can include as many people in our events as possible.

And I’m not sure we would have discovered the magic of well-facilitated online events if we weren’t forced to!

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
One thing that people are often surprised about is that our events are *really* not awkward and are just so welcoming. We train all of our facilitators to be friendly and inclusive, and it’s paid off in the glowing feedback we get about how welcome our guests feel.

Another thing that we really pride ourselves on is that we really care about accessibility.

What sets us apart is that we really both do our research to learn how to host as accessible an event as possible and we also listen to feedback from our guests. For example, in some of our bigger cities, we got feedback that the spaces that some of our events were hosted in were too loud for neurodivergent folks.

So, after many hours of research and development, we actually developed sound screens to isolate noise, and now it’s much easier to hear whoever you’re talking to at our bigger events, not just for neurodivergent folks, but for all our guests!

We really stand by the fact that when you make things better for the folks at your event with the greatest needs, you make things better for everyone.

Alright, so to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
We’d love to have you at an event! Please feel free to check us out at www.skipthesmalltalk.com for more info and for our full event calendar.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Carven Boursiquot, Doreen Peterson, Michael Goodman, Nelson Luna, and Steve Wollkind,

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