What do you say when you don’t know what to say?
Maybe that’s the wrong question. Instead ask, “How can I listen?”
That’s practical insight from Kelsey Crowe, PhD, founder of Help Each Other Out and co-author of There is No Good Card for This: What to do and say when life is scary, awful, and unfair to the people you love. (HarperCollins 2017). Kelsey also leads an “empathy bootcamp” that has attracted a wide range of professionals, especially healthcare pros. Help Each Other Out makes human in times of suffering easier for patients, their loved ones, and professionals via workshops, interactive games, and talks.
Kelsey teaches social work at California State University. Her work has been featured on several media outlets like NPR, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, Oprah.com, and others. She hopes for a day when no one has to suffer a personal trial alone because the people around them just didn’t know what to do or say.
Quality Talk Episode 54.
4:34 – What led Kelsey to write There is No Good Card for This?
“It was a multi-layered process.” She studied local politics and then public policy-making, but was “always nagged by this question about how to connect with people in difficult times.” She decided that as a social scientist, she would undertake a new research project to study the common, shared experience of regret from not reaching out to someone or being self-conscious because we said the wrong thing.
Kelsey went many steps further with research, her book, and workshops.
6:15 - “I experienced this problem as such a personal failing. I had been in the shoes of someone who needed others to reach out to me,” Kelsey says, then detailing how she had to hospitalize her mother due to a mental illness.
“I really lost her to that illness” at age 19. “There was nothing I could do. I experienced a lot of hardships as anyone does … and found that I was really afraid to ask for help.”
Kelsey knows the pain of loneliness and isolation, as well as the discomfort of not knowing what to do or say for someone experiencing a loss, whether similar to hers or possibly a job loss, divorce, or a death.
“It was a problem that eventually drove me to make a big detour in my life and do this research and develop these workshops and write this book.”
9:20 – “I really thought I could find an algorithm” about the best thing to say, she adds. “It was a completely naïve hope. The data kept screaming at me over and over again … This data kept screaming, ‘Don’t fix, don’t try to say the perfect thing. Just listen.’”
“Advice is like chemotherapy. It is highly toxic. People can only tolerate so much dosage. It can sometimes do more harm than good.” - Kelsey Crowe
Kelsey adds: “It’s almost best to say, ‘How can I listen?’ Even if you only have a couple minutes of time.” People don’t necessarily need a significant amount of your time. “They need your presence.”
It’s significant to note that her mother’s artwork is featured on her website.
So what did Kelsey need during her mother’s illness?
Don't try to fix it.
12:57 – “I needed gestures more than I needed conversation … What I could have used was people noticing and then offering things like invitations for the holidays.” When it came to needing to stay with her mom overnight at the hospital, perhaps instead of someone saying, “If you need me,” someone would have simply said, “I’m going with you.”
She also needed for somebody to ask, “How are doing without seeing your mom at the holidays?”
What she needed is what we all need in times of struggle: “To be allowed to have any feelings about it and not be judged for it.” Instead, others often see our struggle as a cue to “fix it.”
“The dynamic that happens when we fix is, ‘I am right and you are wrong,’” Kelsey says.
19:26 – Kelsey discusses “empathy management” - acknowledging someone’s pain and difficulty without disrupting what we have to do – and empathic listening to build trust. She encounters an overload of societal pain each day living in San Francisco.
“You can’t afford emotionally or time-wise to take on everyone’s problems. “
24:00 – Kelsey hopes for a day when no one needs to suffer a personal trial alone. Her empathy bootcamps and workshops are for physicians, nurses, people working with seniors, families with a member in prison, individuals “all along the economic spectrum.”
“No matter who you are, this notion of empathy in times of suffering ties us all together.”
The bootcamp uses a lot of humor and well as practical tips. And there are some emotional moments. “People carry an unanticipated amount of shame over this topic,” she says. Bootcamp also addresses “empathy roadblocks” that keep us from connecting with people who are struggling. Kelsey’s conclusion? “We’re making it a lot more difficult than we need do.”
Workshops/bootcamps also include role playing, another way to demonstrate there’s no standard formula for how to listen. Kelsey adds, “Each person is very unique.”
30:36 – Perhaps not surprisingly, participants sometimes feel “an unanticipated level of shame” from recalling a time they said the wrong thing – or didn’t say anything. One of the first questions Kelsey asks participants, setting the stage for the rest of the workshop/bootcamp, is to talk about “a time that you shied away and why you did it.”
“To see that others have that same emotion, same experience,” she says, “is very validating.” Others carry the same or similar regrets and feelings of inadequacy.
Kelsey Crowe's takeaways.
34:16 – The empathy message and training seems particularly poignant for healthcare professionals. Kelsey believes that making connections professionally and with patients – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – is a contributing factor to physician burnout.
The message comes down to these takeaways.
- “You can be a comfort to somebody just by listening.”
- “To reach out and try is better than not doing anything at all.”
An Empathy Bootcamp is a 3.5 hour program, taught by Dr. Kelsey Crowe, Tracy Mulholland and staff that helps us build stronger, more trusting relationships. The approach is grounded in social science but delivered with common sense, humor, and heart. You will come away with tools you can apply immediately for being a better friend, colleague, and family member. Find out more about Empathy Workshops, how to host or sign up for one, HERE.
"This book should be in every starter pack for humans who interact with other humans.”
- Book Riot
"This book is a gift. It’s the wonderful crash course in Humanity 101 that none of us got to take in school.”
- Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic
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