What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love
Heart talk with Dr. Kelsey Crowe.
When a friend loses their job, a coworker has a death in the family, or any way a person’s life has just fallen apart — we have no clue what to say, let alone do. It’s a terrible feeling that we’ve all experienced. But there are real concrete ways to help, and helping is actually easier than many of us think.
Compassion expert Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., and Emily McDowell, creator of the viral sensation Empathy TM Cards, have teamed up to help us learn to offer support with confidence, no matter the situation.
Their new book, THERE IS NO GOOD CARD FOR THIS: What to Say and Do when Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love, raised a lot of curiosity at a very personal level.
Catching up with Dr. Kelsey Crowe, at her Book Reading event here in San Francisco, I’ve learned much more that I expected to.
MM: Your new book ‘THERE IS NO GOOD CARD FOR THIS: What to Say and Do when Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love’, has just been released on Jan 17, by HarperOne. It is a helpful illustrated guide to effective compassion that takes us, step by step by step, past the paralysis of thinking about someone in a difficult time to actually doing something (or nothing), with good judgment instead of fear. The book features workbook exercise, sample dialogs, and real-life examples from your research… it teaches us how to be the best friend we can be to someone in need.
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
KC: I always imagined helping people. I grew up in NYC in the 1970's surrounded by people that were homeless and from the time I can remember, I felt deeply for people who had nowhere to go. I studied social work and had a career as a community builder and municipal policy maker in youth services. Clearly, however, my recent work with Help Each Other Out has circled me back to connecting in a direct way with people who are alone, in all sorts of ways. Writing a book is a significant way to mainstream tools for building relationships when it really counts; and now that I’ve had a taste of it, I write more, on most days, if I can.
MM: What is your absolute favorite way of spending time (other than with your family)?
KC: I love hiking (with my family). And buying flowers.
MM: Where is this interest in compassion and empathy coming from?
KC: My interest in empathy and compassion occurred far later than my interest in helping others, which was very instinctual. Even when beginning work around comfort in times of suffering, I looked to examples like Emily Post to provide etiquette guidelines about being supportive before looking to concepts like “empathy” and “compassion”. That was because I figured I care already, and didn’t need to know about compassion so much as about how you do it.
But then I happened upon a book called Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It by Roman Krznaric which discusses empathy, and I recognized times when I experienced empathy where I tapped into the suffering of another person when I had little personal experience with what they might be going through. I also attended a training by the Shanti Project in San Francisco, which trains volunteers to care for people who are sick. The organization’s founder, Dr. Charles Garfield, opens up the training with a discussion of how everyone wants skills like what to say and do, and advises that what matters more than skills is the simple kindness that brings you to be people in the first place. His emphasis on kindness rather than the perfect gesture resonated deeply with my interview data where people iterated time and time again how important it was that people just show up, no matter in what form. Compassion has since been a fundamental aspect of my workshop and the book.
MM: We are very good at celebrating success in our family, friends, community, work and more…. but what happens when an unexpected crisis strikes (illness, job loss, divorce…) and we find our friend or colleague at work in a difficult situation?
KC: Often we back away from the situation. Typical roadblocks that I discuss in my Empathy Bootcamps and that Emily and I describe in our book are fears that:
We’ll do the wrong thing
Say the wrong thing
We don’t have time or bandwidth, imagining that whatever small thing we do is not enough.
Conversely, some of us might overdo our help, either foisting ourselves onto a person’s life with non-stop advice that is almost always unwanted, or fretting over how we can give the best help by asking, Can I do this, or that? Do you want it like this or that? and making the receiver irritated at being a burden more than feeling supported. Both of these tendencies to either shy away or do too much boil down to us fearing failure; that no matter what we say or do will not be enough.
The premise of our book is that connection in times of suffering is actually a lot easier than we think; and the easier we make it on ourselves, the more likely it is to happen. In my workshop I emphasize a point that “Adequate is awesome because adequate is better than nothing.” And when that slide comes up, a smile beams on the faces of everyone in the room, because people feel they have a greater potential for empathy when the pressure to be perfect is lifted.
MM: What can we say to someone in a difficult situation?
KC: If you plan on talking with someone in some kind of pain, the most useful thing is to focus on not saying anything, and to listen instead. Because the reality is there is no Perfect Thing To Say that will heal someone. In fact, when trying to heal someone, you likely will say the wrong thing. For example, most people don’t want advice, or a “wise” perspective or some comparison to someone else’s situation. We tend to offer these things thinking it will be useful and because we are more comfortable talking about our own experience than hearing about somebody else’s. But the best thing we can do instead is ASK. LISTEN. And LEARN.
And that means resisting the very natural, but unhelpful urge to say what you think, and instead, ask something like, “What’s that like for you?” or “How are you, today?”, with “today” making the question a lot more manageable to answer. To offer moral support when someone needs it, you can say to someone struggling with confidence about how they are handling their situation, “I trust you know the right thing to do” or “I have faith in your judgment.” And should it be true, it never fails to say, “I love you”, over and over again.
MM: In your book you say that ‘BEING KIND TO OTHERS BEGINS WITH BEING KIND TO OURSELVES’. Can you teach us how?
KC: We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to say or do the perfect thing for someone in pain. And that’s a lot about us not trusting the value of what we can authentically offer, which isn’t a ton but which might give us joy to do. If we can trust in the value of our authentic gifts, which for some might be organizing and networking, for others might be gardening and child care, and for others it might be listening and gift giving, the more likely we are to offer it… and without the fanfare that can make people uncomfortable receiving those gifts.
When we offer what we know how to do, and even like to do, without waiting for the person in pain to ask us, then we know that we tried. And usually, that we try is what matters most to the person in pain, too. The kinder we are to ourselves by not expecting to heal someone’s pain, that we can’t be all things to someone in pain, that we, in fact, can only authentically offer a few things well, and sometimes more than other times depending on what is going on in our lives, the more we offer with joy, and the more joyfully someone will receive what we offer, even if they don’t accept it.
MM: What is an Empathy Menu?
KC: The Empathy Menu is a menu of options, ways to support someone through a difficult time. It lists roles that people can play in a person’s life like the listener, the gardener, the hostess, the chef, the driver, the workhorse that runs errands, and several others. It was borne out of an essay by a friend and young cancer survivor Meaghan Calcari who listed roles people played in her life and describes these people as “an extension of my immune system.”
The point of the Empathy Menu is not to advise you to do all of these things, but rather, that you pick only two to three things you actually like to do, and three things that you absolutely don’t like to do. Once you have narrowed down your authentic gift to what you like to do, you commit to only offering those things when supporting someone in their difficult time. What then matters is that you offer up this gift without waiting for someone in pain to ask you for it. It really helps to make things more manageable for the person providing support, and makes your offer more likely to be accepted by someone who needs it.
MM: How can we build high quality connections and compassion in the workplace?
KC: The idea of compassion in the workplace can befuddle us, because a culture of professionalism prohibits us from sharing and acknowledging all kinds of personal circumstances. And sometimes that’s a good thing. You don’t always want to know the details of everyone’s personal life because that can take time away from work, create judgements that inhibit workplace relationships, and that can, according to some, create a level of familiarity that makes professional accountability hard to implement.
However, while not everyone may want to hear about your night out binge drinking or about your online dating life, tragedy happens to all of us. Loss, grief, illness, you name it… we all get afflicted in some way or other. This isn’t about choices in how we use our time or mundane chatter about things that interferes with project deadlines, it’s about our basic humanity; a premise of life that the workplace can almost always embrace more fully. And without community support, the human condition that includes grief and fear and numbness can feel like a personal failure that leads to problems of shame. There are valid reasons that people in a difficult time don’t want much attention about their situation. They may:
Wish to leave their troubles at home
Not want perceptions of their work quality to be affected
Fear being a source of gossip or speculation.
All of these are reasons for being discreet in the workplace about someone’s difficulty.
But what is also true for many of us is that the workplace contains the bulk of our relationships and when our tragedy is ignored by colleagues, those relationships risk slipping out of norms of professional discretion into patterns of inhumane neglect. Connecting around times of vulnerability and suffering provides an opportunity to recognize and affirm our shared humanity; and that builds trust and connection that enhances workplace culture and most importantly, enriches our lives.
Ways to promote a caring culture without being overbearing are to:
Check in with the person about how they want the news handled
Empower a compassion leader (who isn’t on the org chart but is often in your network) to coordinate any kinds of offerings like donated vacation days or even hours
Offer up time to have coffee
Have a group lunch
Leave someone’s favorite donut on their desk
Send an email
Ask someone you are very familiar with how they are doing with their situation… ask more than once.
Bosses can demonstrate compassionate leadership by:
Offering up as much flexibility as possible when someone needs hours off for medical appoints or divorce attorney calls, for example
Bereavement leave or opportunities to work from home or evening hours
Coordinating with others about shifting workloads
Simple flowers and hand penned cards sent to the family, to the hospital
Donations from the company to an employee’s cause of choice if that is relevant.
The key is to offer these things without expecting a colleague would ask, and to do so with very little fanfare- just a matter of fact kind of way, and in some cases, as a pleasant surprise.
MM: A friend of mine just lost her job, what thoughtful gestures would you suggest I use with her?
KC: Reach out and say you admire their work
You will miss them
Shoot them a LinkedIn request
Send over job leads and offers for networking
Always emphasize how much you admire their work.
Michael Bloomberg remarked once in an article about getting fired from Salomon Brothers. To paraphrase, he said he remembers all of the people who reached out to him upon getting fired, but none of the people who reached out when he was promoted. A result of that fact, he now takes an admired colleague who has been fired out to lunch, and in the most visible part of the restaurant. In that spirit, anything you can do to reduce the shame and humiliation of being fired by emphasizing your admiration is very helpful.
MM: Your signature Empathy Workshop gained a lot of traction in the Bay Area. Who is it for and how can people benefit from it?
KC: The Empathy Bootcamp workshop is a three-hour workshop on being there for others in difficult times that emphasizes practical strategies, as well as unblocking us from the usual psychological hang-ups that get in the way of trusting our empathic abilities. It’s for anyone, from people who hate emotional conversations, to people who want to improve their communication skills or find ways that don’t involve talking to be supportive. It become a Bay Area favorite and it’s not uncommon to run into people even two years later who say how much they continue to benefit from what they learned.
MM: How can people get in touch with you, learn more about your work, or hire you for a special talk?
KC: I’m at www.helpeachotherout.com, where people can learn about workshops as well as about potential online seminars that will be coming up this Spring 2017.
MM: Where can people buy your book?
KC: The usual suspects, bookstores and online!
MM: Elizabeth Gilbert said: “This book is a gift. It’s the wonderful crash course in Humanity 101 that none of us got to take in school. Without judgment, and with humor and compassion, this book shows you how to show up as the best possible version of yourself when it matters most.” What would you say?
KC: Oh Gosh! Her book Big Magic was tremendous inspiration for me as I worked on this book. She helped me trust the creative process; and to actually make the leap to begin any of it at all. She embraces vulnerability and risk, while also having the wise perspective to talk about how to make a creative project a manageable and joyful endeavor that nourishes and doesn’t sabotage your life. She is empathic on so many levels, and yes, I am blown away by her support.