The Hot Seat Club has no rules or obligations besides confidentiality, a condition Angelo Pacumio said is key to its success.
Every week, members of the Hot Seat Club gather in Franz Hall and sit in a circle of chairs until someone steps forward to be in the “hot seat.” After someone volunteers, all other members focus their attention on the individual and ask any questions they wish, although no answers are required. Pacumio, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, participated in hot seats during his Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences 175: “Mindfulness Practice and Theory” class as a form of relational mindfulness practice. He co-founded the Hot Seat Club the following quarter after discovering its potential value for students.
“The types of things people are afraid to speak about in public, they feel safe there in the hot seat speaking about it to strangers,” Pacumio said. “I thought that was really inspiring. … So we wanted to create a venue for people to do that through hot seat clubs.”
Adjunct associate professor Marvin G. Belzer, associate director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, said hot seats eliminate normal conversational obligations in order to practice paying attention to another person. Belzer offers hot seats as a method of earning points in his class, Psychiatry 175, but the practice is always optional, and students who choose to participate still have no obligation to ask questions, answer questions or even tell the truth.
The hot seat format mirrors the basic instructions of mindfulness meditation, said Kathryn Gonzales, a program assistant at MARC and UCLA alumna. In mindfulness meditation, Gonzales said participants often focus on a neutral object within themselves, such as their breathing, but in the hot seat and other relational mindfulness practices, the neutral meditative object becomes another person.
Hot seats also parallel basic mindfulness meditation in that they both lack an agenda, Gonzales said, which allows participants simply to wait for thoughts to come to mind naturally while focusing on the neutral object. Belzer said students quickly understand that the hot seat should not have a planned agenda and rarely try to give advice or shape the dialogue in a particular way.
“It’s a space where there’s that opportunity to be seen for who you are,” Belzer said. “It becomes apparent very quickly that the way to do this is just to be real.”
Belzer said hot seats can start off clumsily at first, and will often settle into participants asking ordinary questions such as, “What did you do today?” From there, volunteers will sometimes respond with an answer that piques the participants’ interest and leads to more in-depth questions.
In other social contexts, Belzer said people may steer away from some topics or worry that it may not be the right time to ask certain questions. The hot seat, however, presents the right time to ask any questions and can give insight into people’s lives that wouldn’t be accessible in most situations, he said.
The different social rules of conversation in the hot seat allow for a deeper understanding of other people that wouldn’t be possible in a normal conversation, where people may be more guarded, said Robert Valencia, a third-year neuroscience student and co-founder of the club. He added the flipped social script is key to hot seats’ connection to mindfulness, as mindfulness not only involves becoming aware of oneself but of others as well.
Valencia said people don’t always open up, but when they do, other participants are often amazed by the courage the volunteers demonstrate. Their openness may in turn motivate participants to share things about themselves, whether it’s in the Hot Seat Club or later down the line with friends or family, he said.
The mindfulness practice extends to both the person in the hot seat and the people listening to the answers, said Jason Gong, a third-year psychobiology student and co-founder of the club. The hot seat can function as a form of self-evaluation for volunteers, he said, as certain questions force them to assess their feelings on the spot.
In today’s technological age, people are often too busy to make time for themselves, Gong said, and the Hot Seat Club offers a confidential space for students to express their inner struggles and have other students listen.
“(The Hot Seat Club) gives every person a voice: It gives everybody an opportunity to speak out for (themself),” Gong said. “There are people there who are willing to hear out your problems, who are willing to listen to you.”
In an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of the hot seat format, Gonzales has spoken with participants about their experiences. Many saw the hot seat as a social environment that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Participants felt that hot seats allowed them to be their true selves by creating a space they don’t normally have access to, she said.
“If anyone is remotely drawn to it or curious at all, I would say they should give it a shot because it’s such (an) … experiential sort of thing,” Gonzales said. “You can describe it until you’re blue in the face, but you really wouldn’t get the whole picture until you sat in it and saw it.”