The Courage to Reach Out: What Being There Really Means
An Interview with Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., co-author of There Is No Good Card for This
By Val Walker
Dr. Kelsey Crowe is an author, speaker, and founder of Help Each Other Out, which offers Empathy Bootcamp workshops to give people tools for building relationships when it really counts. She earned her Ph.D. in social work at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a faculty member in the School of Social Work at California State University. Regular clients for her talks and workshops include UCSF and Stanford University, among several others. She is a cancer survivor and human survivor, each day finding meaning in connection and a purpose driven life. You can reach her at www.helpeachotherout.org
by Val Walker
I first discovered Kelsey’s website, Help Each Other Out, two years ago while doing research on how to comfort people living with serious illness. I loved her honesty, compassion and gentle humor in her writings about how to reach out to people in distress. She was learning to live with breast cancer, creatively weaving her personal experience with her expertise in social work and social justice. Drawing from her research, insights and stories, she developed an innovative training program to teach relational skills called Empathy Bootcamp. We chatted on the phone a few times about our common interest in the power of empathy and our writing projects. I found her to be warm, encouraging and generous, even though she had recently endured losing her home in a terrible fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Later in 2015, I was delighted to hear she was well on her way to landing a book deal, co-authoring a book with the viral Greeting Card designer of Empathy Cards, Emily McDowell. Kelsey and Emily’s book has just come out this January, called There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful and Unfair for People You Love. It’s a wonderful resource with lively, vibrant graphics and illustrations, yet full of practical guidance for the delicate art of reaching out.
Q&A with KELSEY CROWE
Congratulations on your book! What experiences convinced you to write There is No Good Card for This?
Kelsey: My experience with cancer was an invitation to write my book.
I began writing when my friend in Grad school got cancer, and I wanted to reach out, yet I was hesitant. I felt stuck. What should I say? How did I belong as a friend now? My experience of feeling so powerless as a friend led me to exploring the cause for my hesitancy to reach out to people who were seriously ill. By doing research and interviews, I gathered material about how to offer help for people in times of need.
While developing this book, I worked as a faculty member at California State University, teaching courses on public policy. I found research that convinced me how important it was to publish a guide for reaching out to people in crisis. I created a guide book, and I tried submitting this to publishers, but it didn’t take off at first. And then, I got diagnosed with breast cancer. That changed everything about how I wrote about helping each other, and I revised my book. I realized I needed to make my private life public. I began a website called Help Each Other Out where I could share my own experiences living with cancer as well as share about so many hard times like loss or divorce and others that affect many of us at one point or another. In addition to the Help Each Other Out website, I collaborated with several empathy experts to develop a training program for lay people and healthcare settings called Empathy Bootcamp, which gives people communication tools for being with others in their time of suffering. With a stronger platform developed for my book, I again worked to find a publisher.
Ideally, to enhance my book project, what I envisioned was having it illustrated. I had heard of Emily McDowell, and loved her Empathy Cards, which were going viral in 2014. As a woman who had been through cancer herself, Emily designed greeting cards for people coping with illness. I had wanted a comedic tone to illustrations for my book, and she seemed like the perfect person to approach, but I wasn’t quite sure how to connect with her. Then, one day, amazingly, I received a text from a friend at the New York Trade Show who was sitting right next to Emily! That friend connected with Emily in person, and introduced my book project. Soon I followed up and called her. I found out that she had also wanted to write a book about empathy. We talked, and she was pleased that I had already written and researched so much of the material—that the project was fully vetted and ready for her input. So, we created the book together with her illustrations, humor, and ideas.
Kelsey, what a remarkable story. It sounds like it was “meant to be” that you connected with Emily—fantastic timing, Kismet. You were the perfect duo to create this book!
If you could sum it up, what are the five main takeaways of your book, There is No Good Card for this?
Kelsey: Here are five takeaways about reaching out to others:
Err on the side of doing something rather than doing nothing. If you are trying to decide whether to reach out or not, it’s better to offer whatever you can, rather than hold back.
You can manage how much you give. Comforting someone can be manageable for who you are, and where you are in life.
It’s much more helpful to listen than to find that elusive “useful” thing to say. Even if you’ve been ill with cancer, it’s important to respect and remember that each person’s experience is unique. Use your experience with illness as a good reason to listen to each other.
Small gestures make a big difference.
Give what you know how to give; and don’t wait to be asked to give.
A few years ago, you started an innovative training program, Empathy Bootcamp. Many of your participants are healthcare providers and caregivers. How do you teach empathy—or how do you teach a way to “operationalize empathy,” as you put it?
Kelsey: First of all, empathy is about a way to live and not just about doing your job well. Empathy is a part of connecting and listening in all areas of our lives. In the past few years, empathy has become a popular buzz word. People are interested in learning empathy skills, especially in our digital age. In my Empathy Bootcamps, I focus much of the training on listening skills which are essential to putting empathy into action. I present three different categories of listening that each require different skills. It helps to distinguish empathic listening from the other kinds, as empathy is so important as a first step to establishing a relationship.
Empathic Listening: This is listening that builds trust. We start with empathic listening before we go to other interactions.
Evaluative Listening: This is where we ask questions to offer up a judgment or assessment.
Fact-finding Listening: This is when people ask a lot of questions because they need specific knowledge to be helpful, like when networking with someone to appropriate resources, or when being a patient advocate.
Empathic listening is the kind of listening we should do most of the time. The other forms of listening can come across as judgmental, or take the person off track from what they truly want to talk about--so use evaluative and fact-finding listening with careful discretion.
Yes, so we need to start with empathic listening to establish a relationship with the person before we move into problem-solving mode. I see how empathic listening lays the foundation of trust and understanding before we get to evaluative listening and fact-finding. Otherwise, we feel more like a commodity than a human being!
I’m so glad you are teaching this vital skill in your Empathy Bootcamp.
On a more personal note, I was wondering if you could share an experience of being comforted when you were first diagnosed with cancer? What were the gestures of comfort that touched you the most?
Kelsey: It wasn’t so much the gesture itself, but the timing of that gesture. One evening I was so tired, felt so alone and shut down. I was pushing myself hard to make it to the end of that day. And suddenly that evening I received a delivery of flowers. It was so spontaneous and beautiful. Perfect timing.
Another time I told someone I was afraid I was going to die. She just hugged me and held me for a moment, and it helped me so much.
What you said convinces me that the little ways we reach out can be vital. One simple gesture just might just come in the nick of time to get us through hell.
Kelsey: Right. Our words or actions don’t have to be perfect--just reach out. On my worst days, it was such a relief to know someone cared.
So true, Kelsey. It’s been a pleasure talking with you today—I could talk with you all day! Thanks so much.
Kelsey: Thank you!
Kelsey’s truly helpful site, and packed with resources too: Help Each Other Out www.helpeachotherout.org
Emily McDowell’s Empathy Cards— uplifting and honest! www.emilymcdowell.com
A wonderful read and fantastic guide for times we need to reach out:
Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.
Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com